How to Choose a Better Health App
Focused on Health - July 2011
by Laura Nathan-Garner
From helping you wake up rested to getting couch potatoes ready for a 5K, there really is an app for everything.
But when it comes to health apps, many don’t get the job done. That’s true of apps for smartphones, iPads, computers and even TVs.
“Many companies are in such a hurry to sell their app that they don’t conduct a study to see if users will adopt real, lasting change,” says Alexander V. Prokhorov, M.D., Ph.D., director of
MD Anderson’s e-Health Technology Program and professor in the Department of Behavioral Science.
“And, app stores don’t have medical reviewers who make sure health apps are medically sound.”
So, it can take some detective work to find a reliable one. Before you start to download, separate the good from the bad with these tips.
1. Set realistic expectations.
Think of health apps as tools to complement what you’re doing offline.
So, before downloading an app, figure out what you need to do to achieve your health goals. Then, figure out how an app can and can’t help.
“Set a specific and achievable goal,” says Jermaine McMillan, project director of MD Anderson’s e-Health Technology Program. “Once you choose an app, make sure you understand what it’s intended to do and how you will use it to help reach your goal.”
2. Avoid apps that promise too much.
Beware of apps promising big results — and fast.
“Research shows that most people can’t change a behavior overnight or even in a week,” Prokhorov says. “So, an app that promises quick weight loss or quitting smoking for good by the end of the month probably won’t produce the results you want.”
3. Research the developers.
Don’t let attractive graphics or enticing features fool you. “Many questionable health apps are developed by good designers who aren’t experts in behavior change,” Prokhorov says.
Advice? Do some digging. Find the developer’s name in the app store or on the app’s website. Then, research the developer and find out:
- Whether they’ve designed other health apps
- How long they’ve been developing health apps
- Whether they consulted health professionals to develop the app
- Whether any reputable hospitals or health organizations endorse the app
No experience, and no consultation with a health organization? That’s a red flag to keep looking.
4. Choose apps that use techniques you’ve heard of.
Does an app use unusual strategies to help improve users’ health? Say, using hypnosis or acupuncture to quit smoking? That, too, may be a red flag.
“Most effective behavior change strategies are based on years of research,” Prokhorov says. “They’re things you’ve probably heard your doctor recommend.”
So, play it safe and stick with apps that use well-known strategies.
5. See what other users say.
Read reviews in the app store, and do a search online to see what other users think about the app.
And, pay particular attention to readers who’ve used the app for awhile. This feedback may provide insight into whether the app can really help you long-term.
6. Test apps before committing.
Even the best app can’t work its magic if you don’t use it as recommended. So, test out several health apps before choosing one and give the one you choose a fair chance.
If an app isn’t easy and convenient to use, you probably won’t use it regularly. And, those healthy changes you’re trying to adopt probably won’t become habit.
Don’t give up if the first few apps don’t do the trick. Test-driving different apps can teach you about your likes and dislikes, so you can find an app — or an offline solution — that works for you.
“The good news is that more health researchers are starting to help design apps,” Prokhorov says. “And that means many great health apps should appear in the next year or two.”
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