What’s the Matter with Mobile Health Apps Today?

Posted on July 24, 2012 by


“I don’t see why anybody wants ‘em!. . ./They are just impossible to control!?What’s the matter with. . . .mobile health apps??. . . today?”

When it isn’t Dick Van Dyke lamenting the state of kids in “Bye Bye Birdie,” it seems it’s a group of nay-sayers about the status of mobile health apps.

With everyone hopping on the app bandwagon, it’s hard to hear their voices–but it’s just possible that they have some points.

Juniper Research, an online platform that focuses on “identification and appraisal of high growth opportunities across the mobile telecoms, content, and applications sector” state in their 2011 Press Release states that mobile healthcare and medical app downloads should reach 44 million by the end of this year, rising to 142 million in 2016.

Mobile health apps seem to be where everyone’s at.

But a closer look reveals that the situation isn’t at all what it seems.

From 2010 to 2012 the percentage of Americans who have downloaded mobile health apps has stayed stable–at 10%, according to the World of DTC Marketing. And that’s despite the fact that the number of available apps has grown exponentially, from 2,993 in the beginning of 2010 to 13,619 in April of 2012.

MobiHealthNews editor Brian Dolan suggests that part of the reason is that the types of apps available don’t really meet market need. In an interview with Mashable he said,

“(A) persistent trend is that the majority of these apps are focused on tracking fitness or diet. There are two or three new BMI calculators released every month, for example — and far fewer are focused on what most people would consider true health problems, like chronic conditions or chronic condition management.”

But beyond the issue of selecting an app in the first place, it turns out that after downloading one, high percentages of people use it a few times and then forget about it.

As of 2009 the Apple Insider found that

“The vast majority of [free] apps downloaded from the App Store are in use by less than 5% of users after one month has passed since the download.”

Only 20% of users return to run an app again the day after it’s downloaded, and the decline sets in passing the 5% mark at one month, and nearing 0 after three months.


Even paid apps showed a similar–if somewhat slower–decline.

Joseph C. Kvedar, M.D., founder and director at the Center for Connected Health said in a recent interview with Huffington Post that there are “two problems with health apps.”

First there’s the problem that people often only use the app once or twice, or, as he puts it, the “shiny new toy isn’t so shiny anymore,” and there’s “lack of interest and lack of engagement.”

He’s seconded in that opinion by Chris Wasden, Global Healthcare Innovation Leader for PwC, who suggests it’s a lack of quality in the apps that leads to this sharp fall-off of users.  In facts, he holds no punches in his critique of what’s out there, saying,

“Most of these apps are actually awful. There may be 12,000 apps out there but they’re not 12,000 good apps. They’re mostly bad apps that people rarely use.”

Well, if he’s correct, it certainly goes far towards explaining what’s the matter with mobile health apps today. In Wasden’s words–almst everything.

But Kvedar suggests a second problem as well. The feedback and suggestions from the app may be inappropriate, because the data is self-entered by users, and might very easily be inaccurate.

It’s a “social diversity bias problem,” he said.

Fundamentally, it seems, it’s a little like starting a new exercise program. Everyone starts off enthusiastic, buys a new running outfit, fits themselves with a spanking white pair of Nikes and sets off running every day for a week or two. By week three it’s down to a light jog twice a week. A month into it people are back in their sweats, sitting around the TV with a bowl of potato chips, and the running clothes get their workouts on Sunday garage-cleaning days.

Apps that require significant amounts of time and input from the consumer are the mobile equivalent of a new exercise program.

In a piece with the winning title, “Why No One Uses Your Health, Medication, or Exercise Trackers,” author Jonathan Richman analyzed which apps got the most use and found this rather discouraging truth:

“Basically, the less work it is for the patient, the more automatic the inputs AND data aggregation or capture, the better.”

Fundamentally the problem with mobile health apps today? Too many of them require significant inputting of information, and, basically, people have a hard time staying motivated to do it. Consumers don’t want to keep up with a lot of the work that they require.

I regret that I have to include myself among those consumers, as well.

What’s the matter with mobile health apps?

I’ll tell you what’s wrong in a nutshell. It’s boring and time-consuming to enter the data required by so many apps to get the most bang for your buck. I mean to enter my calories consumed, my medicines taken, the data about my headaches and their symptoms and triggers, heck, even my simples of SimpleGoals. But in the end I’m really more of a potato-chip-on-the-couch type of app consumer than one enthusiastically willing to exercise my fingers and thumbs updating every head twinge or Excedrin taken.

And apparently I have good company–the 95% of all mobile app downloaders who quit within a month, leaving the apps untouched on the phone screen.

As for the other 5%? They’re out jogging with their mobiles.

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