Mobile Health Research Highlight: Studies on Mobile Apps

It’s been awhile since we’ve highlighted recent mobile health research, and 2013 looks like it’s turning out to be the year to research health-related mobile apps! In the last six months there has been a blossoming of peer-reviewed articles published on the benefits of mobile apps for improving health. These studies examined apps for tracking weight loss, diabetes, mood problems, sleep problems, asthma, and medication management.

Two studies that looked at weight loss apps found that patients who used a weight loss app in conjunction with a provider-prescribed weight loss program were more engaged in the program and had greater success in long-term progress (in other words, they kept the weight off) than those who didn’t use an app while following the program. In another study, overweight patients were able to maintain significantly lower body mass index ratings six months after the study ended, when compared to those patients who did not use an app.

Similar to studies on weight loss apps, recent research on diabetes symptom regulation shows that those who use diabetes-related mobile apps are better at symptom self-management and have more long-term engagement with symptom self-regulation programs. Eight studies on diabetes interventions found that patients who used mobile apps had a significant reduction in blood sugar levels, compared to those that did not use an app. In addition, one study found that those who used app-based interventions had increased acceptance towards management of their diabetes symptoms.

Research on mood-related apps tells us that those using apps for mood regulation track their moods more often than those who don’t use an app. In one study, women who used an app to reduce the tendency to catastrophize (the irrational thought that something is far worse than it actually is) showed significant reductions in the number of catastrophizing events throughout the study, and maintained those reductions five months later. In another study, men who reported stress and mood issues had a significant decrease in depression and other co-morbid psychological symptoms when using an app to manage depression symptoms, compared to those who did not. And speaking of depression, a study that examined this disorder showed that depressed patients that used mood-tracking mobile apps, in conjunction with therapy, had significantly lower depression levels than depressed patients who did not use an app.

Other research on mobile apps found that inexpensive mobile apps to monitor sleep duration were just as effective as the expensive actigraphy devices developed for sleep monitoring. Also, those suffering with asthma might want to look into mobile apps for symptom management, as studies have found that mobile apps are as accurate as emergency room triage in determining whether symptoms need emergency care or at-home self-care (of course, the majority of patients in the study stated they would prefer to use the app than go to the ER). And lastly, a study that examined medication management found that the majority of patients would prefer to use a mobile app to manage meds and give them reminders than traditional methods such as using a watch or timer.

It’s really wonderful to see the explosion of research studies on the use of mobile apps for treatment interventions that are being published this year. I’m excited to see what awaits us in the second half of 2013! Not only is it encouraging to see how successful mobile apps are becoming in increasing general wellness of patients, it also gives me hope that more patients will be using mobile apps during treatment.

Jae Osenbach, Ph.D. is a research psychologist and subject matter expert with the Mobile Health Program at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Telehealth & Technology, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Read other posts by Dr. Jae Osenbach