Latest Research Makes It Clear: Most Medical Apps Suck

hand holding smartphone with of snake oil adverstisement

One of qSample’s proprietary online panels is physicians. The panel is vetted and continually engaged, and we feel it serves a crucial role in medical research and beyond. We like to think that our work represents that hallowed point where online and medicine meet for significant benefits on society.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem the case for medical apps, according to the latest research. Medical apps have evolved, sure, but most of them just suck.

These findings are a takeaway from an IMS Institute’s mHealth app report: Patient Adoption of mHealth—as highlighted in a recent MedCity News piece.

According to the article:

Of the 165,000 apps from the iOS and Android app stores that claim a connection with healthcare, IMS Institute focused on the ones with more than 1,000 user ratings — 67, 424 and found only 26,864 consumer oriented health apps were applicable.

The majority of these studied apps would be better classified as fitness apps (the percentage is probably growing with this year’s arrival of the Apple Watch). Only 10% were connected to a device or sensor, though.

Sure, medical apps that monitor the holistic wellbeing of individuals can indeed make an impact. Yet the quality of apps, according to the study, is lacking for such health functions as blood pressure or blood glucose (that’s a nicer, more PC way of saying they suck).

According to the data, patients do tend to follow the suggestions of doctors on medical apps—mostly in the fitness and diet areas—but at the core there are intrinsic issues that stifle the effectiveness many medical apps. These include:

Absence of reimbursement by insurance companies
Lack of HIPAA compliance
 Little clinical validation
Inability to connect to electronic health records

The MedCity News article does note the IMS Institute report needs a larger scope. The research focused primarily on app stores and not on medical apps used exclusively between digital healthcare companies and medical providers—such as those that deal with chronic conditions like diabetes management and congestive heart failure.

Not all is suck, though. 135 apps were involved in clinical trials in 2013 compared with 300 in the most recent report.

There is also another issue that must be dealt with—what exactly is a medical app?  In another report, the IMS Institute called into question the standards for medical apps. It claimed that “of the 43,689 apps it studied from the app store, about 20,000 were either not health apps at all or only loosely affiliated with health.”

What a mess! Some apps that try to pass themselves as healthcare-oriented include:

Veterinarian apps
Fashion and beauty (like salons selling their services)
Gimmick apps with no tangible health benefits (an example would be apps that make the user sound sick or demonstrate how he or she would look obese)
Apps that are peripheral to health issues, such as fertility or pregnancy contraction-timing apps
Product presentation apps for sales representatives/retailers in the medical or pharmaceutical industries
Apps intended for members of specific clubs/universities in the healthcare field
Apps that fall into the “New Age” category, dealing mostly with such notions as body energies, yoga regiments or generalized spirituality

Sorry, but apps that use the smartphone light to disintegrate acne or hypnotize you into losing your fear of clowns should not be considered valid medical apps. Neither should the one I use to monitor my dog’s diet, although it certainly serves an important role.

In the end, genuine medical apps include approximately 7,400 designed for healthcare professionals and 16,275 designed for patients. But again, their evolution compared to other fields is rather measured and their value questionable in many respects.

Therefore, it would be prudent to formalize some standard or oversight to the certification and genuine medical apps. As a recent study by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, both physicians and patients widely support the use of data on smartphones and other devices for medical use. However, when it comes to self-diagnosis and privacy, physicians break away and become resistant.

I understand the point of medical professionals and private data, as well as the herculean notion of policing apps in a market inundated with them. There are over 3 million apps available in 2015 from Google and Apple alone. Yet it’s key to find some authenticating framework for medical apps or at least some clarity for both physicians and patients.

The physician panel qSample manages contains more than 80k respondents. As with our other proprietary panels, it took years to build, nurture and maintain for quality data. It took work. I’m sure this can be duplicated in time with medical apps, at least for less suck and more healthy exhaling in the healthcare industry.


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