A New Approach to Evaluating Mental Health Apps

MAY 12, 2016
MD Magazine Staff
Based on software engineering, informatics, and clinical knowledge and experiences, a group of researchers has proposed an evaluation framework to assist clinicians in evaluating the utility, safety, and efficacy of smartphone apps for psychiatry.
More than 165,000 healthcare-related mobile apps are currently available, among which the largest category of apps focuses on mental health disorders, covering everything from addiction to depression and schizophrenia. “Evaluating an app requires new considerations that are beyond those employed in evaluating a medication or typical clinical intervention,” write the researchers in a commentary published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
However, the efficacy of most smartphone apps have not undergone rigorous scientific review, according to commentary co-author Peter Yellowlees, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California at Davis and an expert in technology use in the clinical setting. “While patients have access to an exponentially increasing number of apps, the research literature has not kept pace,” He said. “But this lack of data has not held back the high level of industry and consumer interest.”
Among this ever-growing collection of mental health-focused apps, only 14 that cover major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder were examined in a recent literature review. Of them, only half had been reviewed for people with psychosis. And for those seven, little efficacy, safety, or clinical outcome data existed in the published literature.
According to Yellowlees and colleagues’ commentary, psychiatrists are left with two options for considering apps and other consumer devices for clinical care:
  1. Avoid using these apps and suggest to patients that they do the same because of the lack of evidence supporting their utility or efficacy.
  2. Accept that many patients already use these apps and will continue to do so.

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