There Is an App for That: The Universe and the Promise of Consumer Health Mobile Apps

Alla Keselman

Mobile apps are software applications designed to run on phones and tablets, taking advantage of these devices’ unique features, such as touch screen interface. Growing presence of smartphones has resulted in the emergence of mobile apps in a variety of domains, including consumer health. This chapter overviews the existing universe of consumer health apps, including their content domains and functions, and presents several approaches to classifying apps in order to think about their development and evaluation systematically. These approaches include classifying apps on the basis of the tasks they perform (e.g., data collection and processing), on the basis of a phase of patient experience they support (e.g., aftermath of receiving a diagnosis), or on the basis of their integration with a healthcare system. The chapter discusses challenges of health apps’ quality assessment and control, such as scarcity of reliable, accessible (non-proprietary) rating systems, and absence of certifying organizations. It then overviews important health apps quality criteria such as content accuracy, theoretical grounding, usability and responsiveness to user needs, and clinical effectiveness. At the present, very few app developers conduct research into clinical effectiveness of their products, but such practice of building evidence base is starting to emerge. The chapter also discusses issues of privacy and security of the data that individuals contribute into their health apps. These privacy and security issues are complicated by the fact that most app developers and owners are not covered by existing laws governing healthcare information exchanges. Lastly, the chapter discusses practical challenges of findings good health apps, related to difficulty of searching app stores and doctors’ limited familiarity with apps and reluctance to recommend them.

Introduction: Why Apps?

The term “mobile application,” or simply “app,” refers to software programs specifically designed to run on operating systems of tablets and smartphones. Unlike mobile websites, which largely mirror features and functionality of computer websites, apps take advantage of unique features of mobile devices, most notably, the touch screen. A mobile app is “usually smaller in scope than a mobile website, offers more interactivity, and presents more specific information in a format that’s easy and intuitive to use on a mobile device” (Viswanathan, 2019).

The ubiquity of smartphones has resulted in the emergence of mobile apps in many areas of human activity including personal finance, education, and entertainment. Health is also becoming an area where the number and functional diversity of apps are growing rapidly. In addition to ubiquity and portability, smartphones have several unique technical characteristics that greatly increase their consumer health information service potential. These include the ability to serve as sensors/monitors/recorders, ability to take photo images, and GPS function. They can also interface with other specialized sensors and devices. As a result, patient- and consumer-oriented mobile health apps can provide a much broader range of services than computer applications.

 
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