Going digital: A narrative overview of the effects, quality and utility of mobile apps in chronic disease self-management

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Scott, Ian A
Scuffham, Paul
Gupta, Deepali
Harch, Tanya M
Borchi, John
Richards, Brent
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Objective: 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. Methods: 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. Results: 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. Conclusion: 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. What is known about the topic?: Smartphone health apps have attracted considerable interest from patients and health managers as a means of promoting more effective self-management of chronic diseases, which leads to better health outcomes. However, most commercially available apps have never been evaluated for benefits or harms in clinical trials, and there are currently no agreed quality criteria, standards or regulations to ensure health apps are user-friendly, accurate in content, evidence based or efficacious. What does this paper add?: This paper presents a comprehensive review of evidence relating to the efficacy, usability and evaluation of apps for 11 common diseases aimed at assisting patients in self-management. Consistent evidence of benefit was only seen for diabetes apps there was absent or conflicting evidence of benefit for apps for the remaining 10 diseases. Benefits that were detected were of marginal clinical importance, with no reporting of hard clinical end-points, such as mortality or hospitalisations. Only a minority of studies explicitly reported using behaviour change theories to underpin the app intervention. Many apps lacked design features that the literature identified as enhancing usability and potential to confer benefit. Despite a plethora of published evaluation tools, there is no un

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Australian Health Review

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