Get happier, lose weight, be fitter–the efficacy of apps debated in studies present and future pilots

Do they really work to change behavior? Studies for the past seven or so years have debated efficacy; a quick search online will show you a wealth of articles with findings on both sides. We know healthcare-related (consumer behavior and professional apps) are growing like weeds after rain– over 320,000 mobile, wearable, and IoT health apps were available for use in 2017, with 200 added daily (Research2Guidance, IQVIA estimates). But qualitatively, the jury is out.

Three studies published in the last two months come somewhere in the middle.

Obesity and weight loss: A telemedicine-based 12 week study from California State University found that the combination of a secure mobile phone-based platform for data tracking and video conferencing with the research team, plus meeting with the medical doctor once per month, and weekly with a registered dietitian worked to clinical standards, ≥5% of initial body weight loss over six months, for 69 percent of the telemedicine participants (n=13) versus 8 percent in the control group (n=12). Note the substantial hands-on human support each of the 13 participants received. Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, Clinical Innovation & Technology

Activity monitoring not effective unless users set goals: A 400-person study performed by researchers from the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) School of Medicine and their Knight Cardiovascular Institute found that when people used such monitors and apps without a specific goal in mind, their physical activity declined and their heart health did not improve, even if 57 percent thought it did. The subjects, primarily office workers at one site, wore a Basis Peak band for about five months. To gauge heart health, the researchers also tracked multiple indicators of cardiac risk: body mass index, cholesterol, blood pressure and HbA1C. Cardiac risk factors did not change. However, the corresponding author, Luke Burchill MD PhD, told EurekAlert (AAAS) that when paired with specific goals, the trackers could be powerful tools for increasing physical activity. The original study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine doesn’t go quite that far. 

But it’s great for your morale, especially if you pay for it: A Brigham Young University study published in JMIR MHealth and UHealth (August) confirmed that physical activity app usage in the past 6 months resulted in a change in respondents attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, and motivation. This study’s purpose was to track engagement factors such as likeability, ease of engagement, push prompts, and surprisingly, price–that higher-priced apps had greater potential for behavior change. Possible reasons were that the apps provide additional features or have higher quality programming and functionality. (And user investment?)

One growing area for apps is mental health, where the metrics are solidly behavioral and the condition is chronic. The UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has moved forward in favor of piloting them with NHS England. The latest is one from Germany, Deprexis, that uses texts, emails, questionnaires, and cognitive behavioral therapy to give feedback to users. It also has tools to relax users through audio and visual programs. NICE recommends therapist guidance for the trial. According to Digital Health News, NICE is recommending it should be trialed for up to two years in at least two of the specialist services that were set up to improve access to psychological therapies. Again, cost is a factor in rolling out but others are access to care and freeing up therapist time. The organization also plans to review up to 14 digital programs to treat anxiety and depression over the next three years.

Hat tip to Toni Bunting for much of the above

For further reference: The 2017 R2G mHealth App Developer Economics 2017 study has been released and is available for free download here. The 2017 study surveyed 2,400 mHealth developers and practitioners. (Disclosure: TTA was a media sponsor for the study.)

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