To wrap up the month-long focus of aging in place and healthcare, let’s take a closer look health apps. More specifically, let me pose a couple of key questions. First, do they really work? And what needs to happen to bring these tools to the next level of adoption and efficacy? Let me say at the outset I have some personal experience using a health app and can talk from my own personal experience.

Mobile health apps that help patients self-manage their health and, in some cases, their chronic conditions are an important piece of the mHealth puzzle. Health apps have great potential when we talk about helping folks adhere to their medication schedules and keeping them on top of their own health needs. But more importantly, the real question that many of us continue to raise: Are these apps living up to their potential?

The short answer is no. Not really. Some recent research has prompted this answer and this conclusion. The other question that I will ask is why health apps are not living up to their potential, and, importantly, how can we as an industry change this reality?

Back in 2015, the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics reported there were at least 165,000 mobile health apps on the market. This represented a huge growth in the number of health apps during a short period of time, which prompted those of us in the tech space to ask: has quantity translated into quality? Again, the short answer is no.

There were then and are now a few factors working against us here. For one thing, with hordes of apps available to both patients and physicians. without question too many apps can be an overwhelming prospect to find something that works for an individual and his or her particular needs.

What’s more, there’s just not a lot of oversight for apps, even in the health space. A lack of regulatory oversight raises many questions, including whether or not most health apps have ever really been evaluated for efficacy.

It’s a strange concept to me to put something out there that doesn’t really accomplish what it’s supposed to accomplish, but in the rush to produce connected devices and solutions that solve every pain point known to man, it’s certainly bound to happen.

Of course, the app developers aren’t all to blame. One of the most recently published studies on this topic comes from the Centre for Research in Evidence-Based Practice at Australia’s Bond University.

In studying a slew of trials that evaluate the efficacy of health apps, the study found that less than half of the trials—11 of 23—showed any meaningful effect on health that could be attributable to apps.

Less than half? That’s far from impressive.

Similarly, a clinical trial recently published by the JAMA Network, an international peer-reviewed medical journal, took a hard look at the association of smartphone applications with medication adherence and blood pressure control.

In a randomized clinical trial of 411 adults with poorly controlled hypertension, patients who were randomly selected to receive a smartphone app showed a “small improvement” in self-reported medication adherence.

Interestingly, there was no difference in blood pressure between app users and non-app users in this trial. A small improvement is good, I guess, but a substantial improvement would be better.

Medication non-adherence is a huge problem in our society. And it’s not just a problem for the people who aren’t taking their meds—it’s a problem for everyone.

For instance, non-adherence adds to the cost of healthcare because patients who fail to take their medications are more likely to end up back in a clinic or hospital. It adds to physicians’ patient load, too.

Here’s where things get interesting for me personally. The app being used in this particular clinical trial was Medisafe, a popular medication-management app. I actually use Medisafe, and I can personally attest that it has helped me remember to adhere to my prescribed medications

This app gives patients not one, but three reminders per time period—morning, noon, and evening. I set my time and it reminds me—again, and again, and again—until I record that I have taken my dosage for that allotted time period.

Keep in mind, it does still have a bug I would suggest it work outs. For instance, I can click on taken or view. If I click on view, it’s not showing medicine adherence for that time period. My general habit is to get the reminder, take the pills, and to click on the button that appears on the screen to get it off my phone and to take my pills. In this case, the taken and view button are next to each other.

With that said, there is definitely room for improvement with this particular platform, and I’m actually participating in a beta test right now that will surely lead to some upgrades. The health app developer has already put a few in the beta that I was seeking so if you are a patient that is curious like me, you will like this upgrade.

Thus, health apps in general aren’t as effective as they could be. A poor or less-than-ideal user experience is a big hindrance. It’s going to take a while to dial user experience in for health apps.

There are just so many different people looking to self-manage their health and each of these people has unique needs. And think about how important the user experience is for older adults looking to live out their golden years at home.

Health apps have incredible potential, but only if patients can access them, figure out how to use them, and find the effort worth their while.

If any of these pieces are missing, the app isn’t going to be effective for the long term after the novelty wears off. We need to design health apps that nail the user experience, that have been rigorously tested for efficacy, and that ensure data security and privacy.

We also need to keep talking about what makes a health app great. We need to keep doing trials and studies to get feedback from end users and make improvements based on this feedback.

Finally, we need to educate end users—both consumers and health providers—about their options, which could help them navigate the crowded health-app marketplace.

For older adults, health apps can play a major role in helping them remain independent in their own homes.

Let’s be clear, as aging in place starts to become even more of a talking point in the health industry, we owe it to our elders to give them the tools they need to enjoy a happy, healthy retirement.

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