Get Better Health Apps

MD Anderson Experts Offer Tips for Selecting Health Apps

MD Anderson News Release 07/12/11

Finding an effective health app can be a challenge because most are not reviewed by medical experts. But, consumers can identify better apps by following advice from health technology experts at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“Quality apps are hard to find because many companies are in such a hurry to sell their apps,” 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, they don’t take the time to conduct a study to see if users adopt real, lasting change.”

 Prokhorov suggests using these tips when choosing health apps.

Set realistic expectations.

“Think of health apps as tools that complement what you’re doing offline,” says Jermaine McMillan, project director of MD Anderson’s e-Health Technology Program.

Before downloading, consumers should figure out what they need to do to achieve their health goals. Then, figure out how an app can and cannot help.

“Set a specific and achievable goal,” McMillan says. “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.”

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. So, an app that promises quick weight loss or quitting smoking for good by the end of the month probably won’t produce the desired results.

Research the developers.

“Many questionable health apps are developed by good designers who aren’t experts in behavior change,” Prokhorov says.

He suggests looking in the app store or on the app’s website to see who developed the app. Then, research the developers to find out:

  • Whether they’ve designed other health apps
  • How long they’ve been developing health apps
  • Whether they consulted health professionals
  • Whether any reputable hospitals or health organizations endorse the app

“If the answer to these questions is no, that’s a red flag,” McMillan says.

Opt for familiar techniques.

Beware if an app uses unusual strategies to improve users’ health, such as hypnosis to quit smoking.

“Most effective behavior change strategies are based on years of research,” Prokhorov says. “They’re things you’ve probably heard your doctor recommend.”

Play it safe by choosing apps that use well-known strategies.

Test apps before committing.

Even the best app can’t work its magic if it isn’t used as recommended. So, consumers should try several health apps before choosing one, and look for apps that are easy and convenient to use.

Users shouldn’t give up if the first few apps don’t do the trick. Testing different apps is a good way to learn about personal preferences and find an effective app — or offline solution.

“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.” 

Get started with this list of mobile and web apps from government agencies and select health organizations. 07-12-11