Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Do health apps really matter?

Apps are all the rage nowadays, including apps to help fight rage. That’s right, the iTunes app store contains several dozen apps designed to manage anger or reduce stress. Smartphones have become such a prevalent component of everyday life, it’s no surprise that a demand has risen for phone programs (also known as apps) that help us manage some of life’s most important elements, including personal health. But do these programs improve our ability to manage our health? Do health apps really matter?

Early apps for patients with diabetes demonstrate how a proposed app idea can sound useful in theory but provide limited tangible health benefits in practice. First generation diabetes apps worked like a digital notebook, in which apps linked with blood glucose monitors to record and catalog measured glucose levels. Although doctors and patients were initially charmed by high tech appeal and app convenience, the charm wore off as app use failed to improve patient glucose monitoring habits or medication compliance.

Fitness apps are another example of rough starts among early health app attempts. Initial running apps served as an electronic pedometer, recording the number of steps and/or the total distance ran. These apps again provided a useful convenience over using a conventional pedometer, but were unlikely to lead to increased exercise levels or appeal to individuals who didn’t already run. Apps for other health related topics such as nutrition, diet, and air pollution ran into similar limitations in improving healthy habits. For a while, it seemed as if the initial excitement among the life sciences community for e-health simply couldn’t be translated to tangible health benefits among target populations.

800px-Personal_Health_Apps_for_Smartphones
Image credit: Personal Health Apps for Smartphones.jgp, by Intel Free Press. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Luckily, recent changes in app development ideology have led to noticeable increases in health app impacts. Health app developers are now focused on providing useful tools, rather than collections of information, to app users. The diabetes app ManageBGL.com, for example, predicts when a patient may develop hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels) before the visual/physical signs and adverse effects of hypoglycemia occur. The running app RunKeeper connects to other friend’s running profiles to share information, provide suggested running routes, and encourage runners to speed up or slow down for reaching a target pace. Air pollution apps let users set customized warning levels, and then predict and warn users when they’re heading towards an area with air pollution that exceeds warning levels. Health apps are progressing beyond providing mere convenience towards a state where they can help the user make informed decisions or perform actions that positively affect and/or protect personal health.

So, do health apps really matter? It’s unlikely that the next generation of health apps will have the same popularity as Facebook or widespread utility such as Google maps. The impact, utility, and popularity of health apps, however, are increasing at a noticeable rate. As health app developers continue to better their understanding of health app strengths and limitations and upcoming technologies that can improve health apps such as miniaturized sensors and smartglass become available, the importance of health related apps and proportion of the general public interested in health apps are only going to get larger.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Oxford University Press asked if health apps really matter, citing the limited initial success of fitness apps and apps for diabetes patients. Andrew Larkin argues that although health apps have had a rough start, they are poised to become more useful and important. […]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *