Mobile Health Apps: How Useful?

Mobile fitness devices, it seems, are practically everywhere — between wearable watch-like devices and apps for phones and tablets that can track and record your physical activity, calculate the nutritional content of your meal, and tell you how long and well you sleep, it seems that anything is possible.

Except, maybe, when it comes to chronic diseases like diabetes (as well as others like high blood pressure, obesity, arthritis, and mental illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder). While there are several apps that can help keep track of your blood glucose levels — including some that can wirelessly sync with certain blood glucose meters — there’s scant evidence that these software programs lead to better management of your condition.

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According to a study published earlier this month in the journal Health Affairs, while the number of health-related apps has grown enormously in recent years, there are almost no guidelines from doctors or medical organizations about what to look for in an app. In an effort to find out whether user ratings were enough to help people select an appropriate and effective app for their health condition, researchers looked at 137 highly rated apps targeted toward patients with chronic conditions. They found that user ratings were not a good indicator of an app’s usefulness, as shown through different scenarios the researchers put them through. For example, when researchers entered dangerous numbers associated with various health conditions (such as a very low blood glucose level), most apps did nothing to alert the user.

As noted in an article on the study at FierceHealthcare, the researchers concluded that since user ratings aren’t a useful guide for patients — and because mobile health apps have at least the potential to help manage diseases and improve outcomes — doctors should be involved in evaluating them. Furthermore, they wrote, policymakers should make sure that health apps have safeguards to keep users’ data secure — echoing concerns expressed by the American Medical Association last month in a position statement on mobile health apps.

What’s your experience with health-related apps — have you used them for general health or fitness, or to help manage your diabetes? Did you find the one you used effective for the purpose you chose it for? How did you choose a particular app — was it hard to know which one was likely to be best for you? Would you be more likely to use an app if your doctor or a medical association (like the American Diabetes Association) recommended it? Leave a comment below!