Number of Health Apps Soars, but Use Does Not Always Follow

Ken Terry

September 18, 2015

The number of mobile health apps has soared in the past 2 years, with more than 165,000 mHealth apps now available in the Apple iTunes and Android app stores, according to a new study by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. Just in the iTunes store alone, there are more than 90,000 apps, about double the number in 2013. However, consumers are interested in relatively few of them.

Researchers used IMS Health's proprietary AppScript Score database to review nearly 27,000 consumer mHealth apps that are available in the United States. The Patient Adoption of mHealth: Use, Evidence and Remaining Barriers to Mainstream Adoption study shows that:

  • Just 12% of mHealth apps account for 90% of consumer downloads, and 36 apps generate nearly half of all downloads.

  • Forty percent of apps have fewer than 5000 downloads.

  • Nearly a quarter of consumer health apps are focused on disease treatment and management, whereas the rest target fitness and wellness.

  • Ten percent of mHealth apps can connect to a device or sensor that provides physical function data.

  • Since 2013, the percentage of mHealth apps that can connect to social networks has risen from 26% to 34%. Of the top apps, 65% can be linked to social media.

  • More than 90% of mHealth apps remain free to consumers.

The majority of apps have a single purpose, whether that is information or instruction, the report points out. That has not changed in the past 2 years, said Murray Aitkin, executive director of the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, at a press conference held September 14.

An App a Day?

A third of physicians have begun prescribing mHealth apps to their patients, IMS found. When patients received such prescriptions, the report said, their 30-day adherence rates were 10% higher than for patients who downloaded the same apps on their own. For fitness apps, the adherence rates were 30% higher.

Nevertheless, IMS noted, there are some major barriers to an expansion of mHealth prescribing. One is the lack of integration between mHealth device data and electronic health records.

"That remains a fundamental requirement for mhealth to achieve its full value in healthcare management, but it's one where we see only 2% of apps with that capability," Aitken said.

In addition, physicians are as confused as patients are by the proliferation of mHealth apps. To help physicians decide which apps to recommend to patients, Aitken observed, "There are platforms that rate and evaluate and certify apps and that are being gradually embraced by some providers."

One of these is IMS' own AppScore, which it launched in 2013. According to the company, AppScore evaluates all mHealth apps, using criteria developed by IMS, the input of physician advisors, and feedback from patients. Other mHealth app ratings are available from SocialWellth, iMedical Apps, and iGet Better.

Another area of concern to physicians is the lack of evidence for the efficacy and safety of most apps. According to Aitken, "several hundred" papers on mHealth apps have been published. After examining 113 of these studies, IMS found positive evidence supporting the use of apps for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular health, obesity, multiple sclerosis, and mental health. "In addition, 300 mHealth clinical trials are underway, of which 53% target the senior population," the researchers write.

IMS also pointed to the lack of reimbursement for prescribing mHealth apps and reviewing monitoring data. The transition to a value-based reimbursement system was viewed as a factor in greater adoption of mHealth apps in the future.

The IMS study was produced independently as a public service, without industry or government funding.

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