How to choose a better health app

From helping you wake up rested to getting couch potatoes ready for a 5K, there really is an app for everything.

But when it comes to health apps, many don’t get the job done.

Companies are often in such a hurry to sell their app that they don’t conduct a study to see if users will adopt real, lasting change. And, app stores don’t have medical reviewers who make sure health apps are medically sound.

That means it can take some detective work to find a reliable health app. Before you download, separate the good from the bad with these tips.

Set realistic expectations

Think of health apps as tools to complement what you’re doing offline.

Before downloading an app, figure out what you need to do to achieve your health goals. Then, figure out how an app can and can’t help.

Set a specific, achievable goal. Once you choose an app, make sure you understand what it’s intended to do and how you will use it to help reach your goal.

Avoid apps that promise too much

Beware of apps promising big results — and fast.

Research shows that most people can’t change a behavior overnight or even in a week. That means an app that promises quick weight loss or quitting smoking for good by the end of the month probably won’t produce the results you want.

Research the developers

Don’t be fooled by attractive graphics or enticing features. Many bad health apps are developed by good designers who know little about behavior change.

That’s why it’s important to do some digging. Find the developer’s name in the app store or on the app’s website. Then, research the developers and find out:

  • Whether they’ve designed other health apps
  • How long they’ve been developing health apps
  • Whether they consulted health professionals
  • Whether any reputable hospitals or health organizations endorse the app

If the answer to all or most of these is ‘no,’ that’s a red flag.

Choose apps that use techniques you’ve heard of

Does an app take an unusual approach to improve users’ health? Say, using hypnosis to quit smoking? That, too, may be a red flag.

Most effective behavior change strategies are based on years of research. They are things you’ve probably heard your doctor recommend.

Play it safe and stick with apps that use well-known strategies.

See what other users say

Read reviews in the app store, and do a search online to see what other users think about the app.

And, pay particular attention to reviewers who’ve used the app for awhile. This feedback may provide insight into whether the app can really help you long-term.

Test apps before committing

Even the best app can’t work its magic if you don’t use it regularly. So, test out several health apps before choosing one.

If an app isn’t easy and convenient to use, you probably won’t use it regularly. And, those healthy changes you’re trying to adopt probably won’t become habit.

Don’t give up if the first few apps don’t do the trick. Test-driving different apps can teach you about your likes and dislikes, so you can find an app — or an offline solution — that works for you.

The good news is that more health researchers are starting to help design apps. And that means many great health apps should appear in the next year or two.

Alexander V. Prokhorov is director of the e-Health Technology Program and professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

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