An app developed by the Swedish government to curb drinking among university students actually led to them drink more, while a globally popular fitness app made almost no difference to the weight of those who used it, a review of the effectiveness of health apps has found.
Researchers from Bond University in Queensland decided to examine which health and wellness apps, of the quarter of a million available, had been proven to actually work, in the hope that they could provide doctors with a list of evidence-based apps to suggest to patients.
The researchers examined all of the existing credible studies on health apps and evaluated the results to see how many of those studies had shown proven benefits. Only 22 apps had been studied as part of a systemic review, a standard high enough for the researchers to consider.
“However, the overall evidence of effectiveness was of very low quality, which hinders the prescribability of those apps,” the research, published in the international scientific journal Nature, found. “Our recommendations for improving the quality of evidence and reducing research waste and potential harm in this nascent field includes encouraging app effectiveness testing prior to release, designing less biased trials, and conducting better reviews.”
Only one app, called Get Happy, was found to work. The app costs $59.99 and claims to improve happiness and wellbeing by getting users to complete a six-lesson cognitive behaviour therapy program. Participants in a study of the app Promillekoll, designed to curb youth drinking, increased the frequency of their drinking while using the app. And it was found users of the popular fitness and diet tracking app, MyFitnessPal, showed no significant reduction in weight loss or behaviours around physical activity and diet when compared with those who did not use the app.
Lead author of the study, Dr Oyuka Byambasuren, said she believes that any app claiming to affect people’s health should have evidence to back it up. While the Australian Digital Health Agency issues guidelines for wellness app developers to follow, these are voluntary. In the US, however, app developers have been fined for making fraudulent claims about health benefits of apps.
“The evidence for many apps is low but I still believe apps have potential to change health-related behaviours and help people with chronic conditions,” Byambasuren said. “But evidence is a must. And the truth is it’s just really hard to change human behaviour and health-related behaviours. No matter how many apps you download, they only work if you change your behaviour.”
Byambasuren said her research only examined apps that had been researched properly, so there could be useful apps for which evidence did not yet exist.
“For example smoking cessation apps were not included in our study as there are no systematic reviews available on them, but smaller individual studies have shown those apps may have some promising benefits,” she said.
Under Armour, the developer of MyFitnessPal, said the app was intended as a tool to help people record their progress.
“Under Armour is committed to encouraging healthy fitness goals, eating habits, weight management and wellness of our MyFitnessPal users,” a spokesperson said. “MyFitnessPal is a tool that tens of millions of users count on to engage in their own health and wellness.”
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