Who do we trust on health apps?
Health apps available on smart phones should be subject to an authoritative regulatory system that rates them for efficacy, according to an overwhelming majority of respondents to a survey conducted by the Consumers Health Forum through Australia’s Health Panel.
The survey found that almost 90 percent of respondents said that there is a role for the government in regulating health and wellness apps. Almost 60 percent of respondents said that the government should review and rate health apps, while 31 percent said that the government should fund a separate organisation to perform the role.
The survey is the first to be undertaken through Australia’s Health Panel which has been established by the Consumers Health Forum to harness community sentiment on contemporary consumer health issues.
It also found that consumers were most likely to trust recommendations by general practitioners and pharmacists on health and wellbeing apps. The results indicate that consumers trust their peers to give good recommendations on apps, but not completely. ‘Big tech’ avenues such as search engines like Google and Apple are much less likely to be trusted sources of health apps advice.
The CEO of the Consumers Health Forum, Leanne Wells, said the survey results highlighted the growing public demand for credible and effective oversight of health apps given their accelerating reach into every aspect of health care.
“As consumers increasingly turn to health apps to aid and monitor their health and treatment, there’s clearly a need for people to know whether they can trust the apps, and whether they offer the best health option available and are worth the investment in time and money.
“To ensure the health system makes the most of the rapid developments in digital technology now gripping health care, the Federal Government should be moving now to assess how best to support and regulate the safety and quality of health apps.
“Given the rapid entry of health and wellbeing apps into health care, it is time now for the Government, consumers, health providers and app companies to come together to determine the fundamental principles that should govern this activity.
“The CSIRO’s recent Future of Health report states that there were approximately 318,000 mobile health apps as at last year. While that presents increasing opportunities for consumers to manage their own health, many remain unregulated despite making health claims, and they have no accountability for health outcomes.
“As the CSIRO report suggests, highly engaged consumers are demanding faster, cheaper, more personalised and preventative health solutions. There is enormous benefit to be gained by more widespread use of health and wellbeing apps to monitor and self-manage health conditions, but also to ‘nudge’ good lifestyle behaviours and choices,” said Ms Wells.
“However, the digital divide in the community is real: enhancing digital health literacy for people to benefit from this technology is becoming more important. As the CSIRO report says we need to develop robust consumer rating tools, symptom checker apps, and publicly available information sources for such health services.
“The value of the findings of Australia’s Health Panel is that while they reflect the responses of a modest sample of 260 respondents, they nonetheless give an insight into how people are viewing this relatively new and still largely unregulated development in health care.
”Importantly, the sentiments expressed by Panel participants flag areas where we need to do more research and policy development. When health and wellness apps are such that they start interacting with the more formal health system, further questions emerge such as whether they should form part of a treatment plan or even be prescribed and whether they should attract government funding in some form.
“The survey highlights the important role Australia’s Health Panel can play in bringing to policy-makers’ attention the thinking of the community on vital issues,” Ms Wells said.
Australia’s Health Panel is a recent CHF initiative designed to complement the advice and insights we draw from our extensive membership. Interested members of the community can register to be on the Panel here.
A copy of the report: Results of Australia’s Health Panel Survey on Recommendations and Regulation of Smartphone Apps for Health and Wellness can be found here.