Consumers are flocking to health and wellness apps and have tens of thousands to choose from. But if those consumers are already healthy, new research from the British Medical Journal titled “Can healthy people benefit from health apps?” suggests that the apps won’t necessarily do them any good. The article even goes as far as questioning whether or not these apps could cause harm by stoking unneeded anxiety among the worried well.
Since the government regulates consumer apps at their own discretion, many health and fitness apps lack rigorous clinical evidence to demonstrate they can actually improve health outcomes. This uncertainty associated with health app efficacy is exacerbated by the newness of the market, leaving doctors, patients, employers, and other stakeholders uncertain on whether or not these apps are effective.
Does this mean consumers should avoid using these apps until there is scientific consensus on their ability to improve health? According to many physicians, the answer is no. As with most novel technology markets, the first wave of solutions are full of good apples and bad. The apps that encourage healthy behavior and tracking of appropriate factors have huge potential to improve health and wellness. These are the good apples. Many of these apps focus on lifestyle management and help consumers become more physically active and improve their nutrition.
The dissenting opinions focus on apps that are more clinical focused rather than lifestyle focused (bad apples, more like not-ripe-yet apples). The concern is that the worried well will become self-monitoring “neurotics” that focus on tracking everything, including vital signs. A great example of these types of apps are the two melanoma apps that the FTC accused of falsely claiming that they could accurately analyze skin moles for the risk of melanoma.
The “wild wild west” of health apps make it critical that organizations looking to deploy wellness programs curate and vet the apps they bring to their populations. In short, only high quality life style management apps should be on the platform. In the future, more clinical-focused may prove themselves worthy for mass distribution, but until then, sponsors of wellness programs must walk with caution.