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University study finds little evidence of effectiveness of health apps

University study finds little evidence of effectiveness of health apps
May 11, 2018

With more than 200,000 fitness and health apps available to users of mobile technologies, newly published research from a team at Bond University on the Gold Coast suggests that few are effective, while others failed to encourage lifestyle and health improvements or made the problem worse.

Undertaken with the aim to provide doctors with a list of evidence-based apps to suggest to patients, the team from Bond University’s Centre for Research in Evidence-Based Practice 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.

Published this week in Nature's new Digital Medicine journal, 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.

By contrast the study found that participants in a study of the app Promillekoll, designed to curb youth drinking, increased the frequency of their drinking while using the app. In addition, 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. However, in the USA, app developers have been fined for making fraudulent claims about health benefits of apps.

Dr Byambasuren advised “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. 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.”

Dr Byambasuren said her research only examined apps that had been researched properly, conceding that there could be useful apps for which evidence did not yet exist.

She added “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.”

Under Armour, the developer of MyFitnessPal, said the app was intended as a tool to help people record their progress, witha spokesperson advising “Under Armour is committed to encouraging healthy fitness goals, eating habits, weight management and wellness of our MyFitnessPal users. “MyFitnessPal is a tool that tens of millions of users count on to engage in their own health and wellness.” 

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