Vol. 2 No. 2 (2022)
Horizon Scans

An Overview of Smartphone Apps

Published February 22, 2022

Key Messages

  • Health-based mobile applications (mHealth) are downloadable applications on a smartphone or similar device for use in health care, either by the person directly or by a health care provider. This Horizon Scan summarizes the available information and provides an overview of health apps on smartphones that are not connected to specialized medical equipment, describing examples of emerging apps in different clinical areas, who they might benefit, and their operational issues.
  • There are over 350,000 mobile applications available for download in app stores, used for a variety of disease areas. These areas include chronic disease, stress, mental health, fitness, sleeping problems, general medication adherence and tracking, and vital sign measurements.
  • The scan identified that health apps often fall into 1 of 4 categories: informational applications, diagnostic applications, disease management applications, and fitness tracking applications.
  • Numerous apps were identified that are available for use by people in Canada. Health apps offer the potential to provide convenience, flexibility, accessibility, and personalized health information. However, the majority of health apps that require evidence of benefit for users have not been assessed in appropriately designed studies that examine their clinical efficacy, or safety. The apps that have been tested in some research studies may have numerous shortcomings in areas such as app design, user engagement, user satisfaction, and retention.
  • This scan describes some operational considerations for apps that relate to their lack of evidence-base, concerns about biases in app design, and the need for equity focused app development. It was noted in the literature that many apps do not provide appropriate privacy and confidentiality for consumers, which may put people at risk of data breaches or inappropriate use of personal data.