Smartphone health applications (apps) are being increasingly used to assist patients in chronic disease self-management. The effects of such apps on patient outcomes are uncertain, as are design features that maximise usability and efficacy, and the best methods for evaluating app quality and utility.
In assessing efficacy, PubMed, Cochrane Library and EMBASE were searched for systematic reviews (and single studies if no systematic review was available) published between January 2007 and January 2018 using search terms (and synonyms) of ‘smartphone’ and ‘mobile applications’, and terms for each of 11 chronic diseases: asthma, chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD), diabetes, chronic pain, serious mental health disorders, alcohol and substance addiction, heart failure, ischaemic heart disease, cancer, cognitive impairment, chronic kidney disease (CKD). With regard to design features and evaluation methods, additional reviews were sought using search terms ‘design’, ‘quality,’ ‘usability’, ‘functionality,’ ‘adherence’, ‘evaluation’ and related synonyms.
Of 13 reviews and six single studies assessing efficacy, consistent evidence of benefit was seen only with apps for diabetes, as measured by decreased glycosylated haemoglobin levels (HbA1c). Some, but not all, studies showed benefit in asthma, low back pain, alcohol addiction, heart failure, ischaemic heart disease and cancer. There was no evidence of benefit in COPD, cognitive impairment or CKD. In all studies, benefits were clinically marginal and none related to morbid events or hospitalisation. Twelve design features were identified as enhancing usability. An evaluation framework comprising 32 items was formulated.
Evidence of clinical benefit of most available apps is very limited. Design features that enhance usability and maximise efficacy were identified. A provisional ‘first pass’ evaluation framework is proposed that can help decide which apps should be endorsed by government agencies following more detailed technical assessments and which could then be recommended with confidence by clinicians to their patients.