Health Apps Fall Short on Privacy Protections, Patient Engagement

There are thousands of healthcare apps for consumer smartphone and tablet users, but a recent study found that fewer than half of available patient-facing health apps appear likely to help users.

For a report published by the Commonwealth Fund, investigators set out to determine the effectiveness of consumer-facing apps targeting high-need, high-cost patients with chronic conditions including: diabetes, dementia, depression, bipolar disorder, cirrhosis, pain, heart disease, and many others. They then developed a framework to determine whether apps targeting these populations achieve high levels of patient engagement, quality, and safety.

The investigators “conceptualized patient engagement as the ability for apps to enable collaboration, activation and participation, information-sharing, and decision-making in one’s own health. Patients may differ to the extent to which they participate in their health care, and we wanted to evaluate the degree to which apps may enable patients to increase their engagement,” they noted in the report.

After searching Android and Apple iOS apps for specific conditions they narrowed their focus to 161 iOS apps and 152 Android apps.

The criteria for judging patient engagement were:

  • Supporting behavior change through rewards
  • Providing support through social networks
  • Enabling communication with clinicians, family members, and caregivers
  • Providing guidance based on information entered by the user
  • Displaying and summarizing health information
  • Recording and tracking health information
  • Reminding or alerting users
  • Providing educational information

The investigators uncovered several apps that met these criteria. One was Mango Health, a medication management app that helps users manage dosing, provides drug interaction alerts and warnings, and helps track side effects. Another app, Mood Tracker was originally designed in part by the US Department of Defense to monitor emotional health, including anxiety, depression, head injury, stress, posttraumatic stress disorder, and general well-being for members of the armed forces. Now it’s available for the general public.

Health App Privacy

Separate research found that health apps tend to lack privacy policies, leaving personal information unprotected by users.

“Simple privacy policies can help patients protect their personal information, but only 19 percent of the apps in our study had a privacy policy available pre-download,” researcher Sarah Blenner, a public health researcher at the University of California Los Angeles told Reuters. “App developers avoid privacy policies because they want to be able to share health information to advertisers without the knowledge of the users,” she added.

To study privacy controls in health apps, Blenner and her colleagues evaluated apps used for chronic conditions, settling on Android diabetes apps. They focused their efforts on 211 apps. They discovered that of a subset of 41 apps with privacy policies, only four of those apps said they would ask users for permission to share data. Additionally, “slightly more than half of the apps with privacy policies said they would collect data when the app was used or when people registered for an online account,” the Reuters article stated.

Click here to read the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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