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MHealth apps too complicated for vulnerable populations

There’s no denying that mHealth apps have the potential to help patients better manage their health. But according to a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, mHealth apps are too complicated for the populations who would benefit the most from their use. The study surveyed 26 patients at the Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, a UCSF partner hospital that treats many low-income patients.

MHealth apps can provide patients with educational information about their conditions and allow them to track health data over time. But the current design of 11 commercially available mHealth apps for depression and diabetes observed by UCSF researchers are not user friendly, often requiring significant manual data entry. The apps also lacked large buttons and easy to follow navigation, which frustrated many of the survey participants.

The complexity of mHealth apps can lead to health disparities in vulnerable populations such as those with low health literacy, which refers to an individual’s ability to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services. Of the patients surveyed, 70% were found to have low health literacy. In a February 2016 interview with SearchHealthIT news writer Kristen Lee, Ahmed Albaiti, founder and CEO of digital health consultancy Medullan, Inc., said people with lower health literacy often have chronic conditions and are in an age group that makes it difficult to learn new technology.

While patients with diabetes and other chronic conditions could benefit from using tools such as mHealth apps and wearable devices, they either can’t afford them or do not see the value in using such tools, Lisa Gualtieri, assistant professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University and founder of RecycleHealth, told SearchHealthIT. There is also a lack of awareness, as wearable device companies would target the people who want, rather than need, their products. However, the potential for increased mHealth app usage is there – a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center found that 64% of American adults own a smartphone. Furthermore, 62% of smartphone owners used their phones to look up information about a health condition.