DEAR DOCTOR K:
There are so many health-oriented apps for mobile devices these days. But is there any evidence that they actually work?
The number of health-related apps for mobile devices has exploded in recent years. The most popular ones monitor physical activity. Others deliver helpful reminders or information through text messages. Various apps aim to help you lose weight, monitor your blood pressure, manage your diabetes or quit smoking.
When you first start using them, the novelty of entering and tracking information can be very engaging. But keeping up that behavior over the long haul can be a challenge. So, can using these apps really make a difference?
Research is starting to weigh in. One study, published in 2015, looked at whether getting texts about lifestyle changes helped to boost heart health. The researchers enrolled 700 people with heart disease. Half were randomly assigned to receive four text messages each week on their cellphones, in addition to their standard care. The texts were semi-personalized. They encouraged participants to exercise more, eat less salt, and make other heart-healthy lifestyle changes. The other study subjects received only usual care.
The study lasted six months. By the end, people who got the text messages had reduced their bad cholesterol, blood pressure and weight compared to those who didn’t get text messages.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recently reviewed 69 studies that evaluated how mobile health (mHealth) technology affects heart disease risk factors. Here’s what they found:
- WEIGHT LOSS: People who used weight-loss apps or mHealth tools plus a comprehensive weight-loss program were more successful over the short term compared with people who tried to lose weight on their own. But there’s no data about whether people kept weight off beyond 12 months.
- PHYSICAL ACTIVITY: People who used online programs boosted their physical activity more than those who didn’t. But there’s not enough research to show whether wearing a device to monitor physical activity actually helps you move more. My bet is that it will. I am impressed by how many people — patients, friends and colleagues — tell me that they check their smartphones to see how many steps they’ve taken in a day. And also that they ramp up their physical activity when the count is low.
- SMOKING CESSATION: mHealth apps used together with a traditional quit-smoking program may help smokers kick the habit. But the vast majority (about 90 percent) of people using these apps still fail to quit smoking after six months. My bet is that mHealth apps, when used as part of a quit-smoking program that includes a community of other people also trying to quit, will prove to be useful.
And mHealth technologies for improving blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes? There’s little or no available evidence so far about their effectiveness.
And what about sensors that continuously monitor our bodies and send the information to computers used by our doctors? Too early to tell.
Mobile health technology is still in its infancy. Some applications will prove ineffective. But I’ll bet such technology is a central part of the medical care system within 10 years — and will improve our health.