- Patient mHealth app use is a key indicator of motivation for health behavior change, which is an important step in chronic disease management, according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
mHealth apps have proven both promising and popular tools for chronic disease management. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of patients were using mHealth apps in 2015, according to a report from Pew Research Center. That number will likely continue to grow, separate studies have found.
As the number of patients using mHealth apps continues to rise, researchers must begin to assess app efficacy.
To what extent do mHealth apps drive health behavior change in chronic disease patients?
mHealth apps have not yet proven effective at creating behavior change – but they do mark a patient’s intent to adopt healthier behaviors, according to a German research team.
The researchers conducted a population-based survey of 4,144 patients aged 35 or older. The survey measured sociodemographic information, chronic condition presence, health behaviors, quality of life, health literacy, and prior and current use of health IT (i.e. smartphones and mHealth apps).
Overall, 61.25 percent of respondents reported using a smartphone. These users were younger, did more internet research, and were more likely to work full-time and have a college degree than their non-smartphone-using peers.
Additionally, smartphone users were more engaged with their individual health, reporting more physical activity, higher quality of life, and health literacy scores.
Of the 2,538 smartphone users, 20.53 percent reported mHealth app use. The app users were younger, conducted more internet research, were more likely to report chronic conditions, were engaged in more physical activity, and had higher health literacy scores than their non-app-using counterparts.
There was a modest correlation between mHealth app type and behavior change goals, the researchers observed. Patients using planning, feedback, and monitoring apps usually had plans to improve physical activity. Feedback and monitoring apps also moderately correlated to adherence to clinician advice.
Despite the plethora of mHealth apps on the market and their widespread use, the researchers did not have enough evidence to conclude that mHealth apps currently drive behavior change in chronic disease patients.
However, mHealth app use does mark a patient’s decision to make a wellness behavior change, a promising first step in self-management.
“Although using a health app may reveal an interest in health and certain health behaviors, the apps that people were using were not necessarily reflective of the health behaviors they were performing,” the research team said. “Hence, health app use may reflect a user’s motivation to change health behaviors.”
Furthermore, the type of mHealth app used naturally reflects the type of behavior change the patient wants to make. The most common mHealth app focuses included smoking cessation, healthy diet, and weight loss, indicating that many patient participants want to make positive improvements in those wellness areas.
“Although using a health app may reveal an interest in health and certain health behaviors, the apps that people were using were not necessarily reflective of the health behaviors they were performing. Hence, health app use may reflect a user’s motivation to change health behaviors,” the research team wrote.
mHealth apps could be more effective if they were more catered to individual patient populations.
There was a significant chasm between mHealth use and certain demographic factors including age, educational attainment, and health literacy. Thus, mHealth developers must consider unique needs of older patients, those with low health literacy, and those with chronic conditions to make apps both appealing and usable.
“The role of age in the use of health apps highlights that the relevance of new potential ways of supporting health topics is growing in the future. However, app developers should not forget about older people, especially because health issues become increasingly important in later years,” the researchers said.
“Tailored theory-based health app interventions may be a way to reach people from all ages, and app developers should take the needs of older people and people with low health literacy into account to further decrease the ‘digital gap’ between users and nonusers,” the team recommended.
More research must go into patient motivation when using an mHealth app going forward. Investigators should also look further into how mHealth app use may one day drive behavior change, and how sociodemographic information influences app use and behavior change.