Mobile Health Apps: To Download or Not To Download?

CDS Affiliate Faculty Member Dustin T. Duncan, along with researchers from NYU and Emory, explores how people with chronic conditions perceive and use health apps

For individuals with chronic conditions, adhering to a disease management plan can prolong and enrich life while minimizing healthcare costs. But properly managing a chronic condition can be stressful and demanding. One way chronically-ill people can ease this stress is by using mobile health apps which can facilitate disease management by promoting healthy lifestyle behaviors, tracking exercise, improving nutrition, assisting with weight loss, reminding people to take medication, and more.

Over 3500 health apps are currently available for individuals with chronic conditions, with most designed for users with diabetes or depression. Yet, as mobile health apps have proliferated, little research has tracked how people with chronic conditions actually use them. In a new study, however, CDS’s Dustin T. Duncan, Assistant Professor of Population Health and a team of researchers sought to address this problem and to determine if chronically-ill people believe they can benefit from mobile health apps.

The researchers sourced their data from a national sample of mobile phone users collected in 2015 for a previous study about mobile phones and health.

According to the demographic qualifications for the new study, the sample yielded 1604 respondents to a survey which included 36 questions about health and mobile health app use.

For their data analysis, the researchers examined health app download and usage by chronic condition, self-reported health, physical activity, and according to demographic factors. 37% of respondents reported very good health and 13% reported excellent health. The most common chronic conditions reported by the remaining participants were hypertension, obesity, diabetes, depression, and high cholesterol.

An analysis of the data showed that having self-reported excellent or very good health was a strong predictor of health app download, and people with one day or more of reported physical activity per week were far more likely to use health apps than those who reported no physical activity. Among those with chronic conditions, people with hypertension, depression, and high cholesterol were least likely to download health apps, and only about one third of individuals with chronic conditions agreed that health apps have the potential to dramatically improve their health.

For future intervention, the researchers propose improving how the benefits of health apps are communicated and marketed to people with chronic conditions. The researchers also suggest future studies to determine perceptions about the value of health apps among healthcare providers. As new data and analyses continue to emerge about attitudes toward health apps, individuals with chronic conditions stand to benefit from altering perceptions and increasing usage of health apps.

By Paul Oliver