Ever wondered whether you should be using your smartphone for something slightly more worthwhile than playing Angry Birds?
A growing number of experts are saying that mobile devices just may be the next big breakthrough in public health.
"There is incredible potential for using cellphones and mobile apps to engage people about their health and wellness in a new way — to help them take better care of themselves and especially to manage such chronic conditions as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure — because of the immediacy and the interactive nature of the technology, and the fact that it is now so widespread," says Susannah Fox, lead health researcher for the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "In a snap, clinicians can use cellphones to communicate with far-flung patients. In an instant, medical information can be relayed out to the field and forwarded to the people who need it. And just as quickly, those people can text back with questions or on-the-ground reports."
That said, Fox points out that most of us still aren't capitalizing on all of this potential. "We are in a situation where we have the technology and we certainly have the need — just look at all of the statistics on the rise of obesity and other unhealthy trends," she says. "But what we have not yet seen is an uptick in the percentage of people who are adopting and using these health apps."
According to Pew's latest data, although 88 percent of Americans have a cellphone and about half of those are smartphones, only 10 percent of us have downloaded health-related apps on those devices, a figure that's remained stable since 2010.
Nonetheless, these apps continue to proliferate, says Brian Dolan, editor and co-founder of MobiHealthNews, which reports on the mobile health industry. According to Dolan's company, the number of consumer health apps in the Apple Store has exploded from 2,993 in February 2010 to 13,619 this past April.
"The growth is amazing, and it continues to accelerate," he says. "But a persistent trend is that the majority of these apps are focused on tracking fitness or diet — there are two or three new BMI calculators released every month, for example — and far fewer are focused on what most people would consider true health problems, like chronic conditions or chronic condition management."
What's more, the quality of apps is uneven and, unfortunately, untested, adds clinical psychologist Lee Ritterband, director of the behavioral health and technology program at the University of Virginia. "The problem is that there are very few apps that have real, solid empirical evidence behind them, or any scientific backing to what they are or what they say they do," he says.
Still, Ritterband believes that some early research shows promise. A study published this spring in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that remote health coaching supported by mobile technology, along with financial incentives, made a big difference in fruit and vegetable intake and daily activity levels among adults with elevated saturated fat levels and other bad diet and fitness habits. Participants used a personal digital assistant to immediately record their behaviors, received continually updated feedback and advice on their choices, and earned $175 if they reached and maintained their goals.
A 2009 study found that people who received text messages about weight control and other health issues two to five times a day dropped more pounds over a four-month period than those who received printed materials in the mail.
"The best mobile apps and interventions can definitely make a big difference in health and wellness," Ritterband says.
"We know very clearly that one size doesn't fit all when it comes to the range of health issues: People need different things and need to be helped along and prompted given their particular needs," says Ritterband, who notes that a recent research review of mobile interventions for diabetes management found that those with the most successful, significant impact made use of clinician involvement and tailored feedback and advice.
It can be tough to find good advice on which apps are worth downloading. "Currently, consumers are really on their own when it comes to finding high-quality, worthwhile apps, and it's mostly trial and error," Dolan says. "The good news is that, for the most part, the majority of health apps are either free or cost a couple of dollars, so once you have the phone, it's not that much of an investment to try them out."