Public Health: There's An App For That

Apr 19, 2011, 6:10 PM

How healthy is your smartphone?

There are thousands of health apps available on the market. A few free ones from national public health organizations are definitely worth checking out:

  • An American Association of Poison Control Centers app that links users to a local poison control center (currently available on iPhone only, but in development for Android, Blackberry and Windows-based smartphones).
  • An app from the American Heart Association that lets users find and track walking paths (available for Android, coming soon for iPhone).
  • UPDATED: A commenter let us know about the Harvard Public Health School app: "With the HSPH Public Health News app members of the Harvard School of Public Health community and others can connect with each other and stay up-to-date on breaking public health news and research, plus events and activities going on around the School." Great addition!

Though it will take time to determine what sort of health apps are most effective, health organizations will definitely continue to develop the smartphone tools, says Lorien Abroms, Sc.D., an assistant professor at the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Abroms recently published a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that reviewed 47 smoking cessation smartphone apps available two years ago on the iTunes app store. The study looked at how well the apps complied with the U.S. Public Health Service’s 2008 Clinical Practice Guidelines for Treating Tobacco Use and Dependence. Most of the apps fell short. Three that complied with at least one guideline could not be recommended due to poor “ease of use” or poor breadth of content. But Abroms says she expects better-executed public health apps to make their way to the market soon.

Abroms offers criteria for judging public health apps:

  • They should be developed from evidence-based guidelines for behavior change in that area (e.g., the U.S. Public Health Service Clinical Practice Guidelines)
  • They should offer periodic messaging/alerts to guide behavior change (Abroms says that while we have little evidence about guiding behavior change with smartphone apps, through research on text messaging we know that periodic messages can help with smoking cessation, weight loss and diabetes management)
  • The app should offer the opportunity to get social support for behavior change
  • If possible, the apps should provide links to other proven services (e.g. a quitline)

Weigh In: What's your favorite public health app? Tell us in the comments.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.