Mobile health apps show promise for improving health outcomes, UF researchers say
By Jill Pease
Consumers and health providers have their pick of thousands of health apps and programs delivered via mobile devices, but there has been little information available on how effective they are at improving users’ health.
Now, research from the University of Florida suggests mobile health, or mHealth, programs may make a difference in promoting healthy behaviors. In an analysis of studies of mobile health interventions used with pediatric patients, researchers found that the interventions can improve children’s health outcomes. The findings were published in JAMA Pediatrics.
“Given the ubiquity of mobile phones and the willingness of youth to use their mobile devices for health-related activities, mHealth interventions appear poised to be a viable health behavior change modality,” said the study’s lead author David Fedele, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of clinical and health psychology at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions.
Mobile health interventions are attractive to consumers and clinicians for a number of reasons, Fedele said, such as the ability to capture many different types of health data. While early mHealth programs mostly relied on text messaging to deliver reminders or education to patients, many of these have evolved to take advantage of new technology that allows apps to capture information on a number of health behaviors, such as a person’s daily steps, sleep quality and even engagement in mindfulness meditation.
“Using mobile health interventions can leverage all of this different information to deliver something that is potentially more tailored to the individual, specific to their needs and maybe even a better representation of a person’s daily life,” Fedele said. “And, depending on the program or intervention, providers can continue to deliver content outside of the clinical encounter.”
For the current study, Fedele and his colleagues searched thousands of scientific papers and found 37 studies that evaluated the effectiveness of mHealth technology to promote healthy behaviors in children. The studies targeted health concerns such as immunizations, diabetes, asthma, obesity, physical activity, dental hygiene and sun safety. The studies used mHealth in a variety of ways, including to provide personalized reminders and information, or to record disease symptoms and offer interactive feedback.
The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of the mHealth studies and found that the interventions were effective at improving health behaviors and health outcomes in patients. The mHealth programs with the most success included parents or guardians in the intervention.
“From this study we are able to tell providers that a range of mHealth strategies are worth trying,” said co-author Christopher C. Cushing, Ph.D., an assistant professor and assistant scientist at the University of Kansas Clinical Child Psychology Program and the Life Span Institute. “However, at this stage, we need to do more work to make specific recommendations about what providers should use in practice. Generally, it seems that we can encourage mHealth approaches in clinical practice with a healthy dose of good clinical judgment.”
As the field of mHealth grows, more research is needed to examine the effectiveness of mHealth interventions for specific diseases, health topics or health outcomes, as well as the behavior change theories that should drive the development of new interventions. Future research should also evaluate what mHealth features are most valuable to patients, the investigators say.
“I think we’re just scratching the surface with what mobile health interventions can really do,” Fedele said.