Digital health tools like smartphone apps have been exploding in popularity, and there are now thousands available in the App Store and on Google Play.
Trouble is, most of them have been developed without research, and lack scientific evidence to prove they are effective.
It can be daunting to browse through available mobile apps to choose one that fits your needs and isn’t made by an disreputable developer who maybe didn’t use evidence, collaborate with clinicians, or co-design the app with people with lived experience. It’s equally hard for a therapist or other clinician to recommend apps to clients, not knowing which are trustworthy and popular with users.
For guidance, the American Psychiatric Association has stepped up to help people assess the quality of mhealth tools (mobile apps) for mental health. They’ve created the App Evaluation Model, a free and easy to use tool that’s a series of five questions designed to assess the quality of individual apps. Instead of the organization recommending specific apps in a market that’s constantly changing, its App Evaluation Model empowers users and clinicians to think critically and assess apps ourselves.
There are five steps in the App Evaluation Model, built like a pyramid with each question being a foundation for the next.
- What is the background information?
This includes basics such as who is the developer (startup, nonprofit, government?), what does the app cost and what is the business model (eg. does it require in-app purchases and upgrades?), when was it last updated, and more. Start by learning where the app comes from and how it generates money. This will reveal a lot about its legitimacy.
- Risk, security, and privacy.
Is there scientific evidence of the effectiveness of its claims? Most apps don’t undergo research trials, so we need to look at other types of validity. Is it highly rated by users, with positive and detailed reviews about its features? Is is evidence-informed (based on a proven treatment even if it wasn’t directly tested in that app, eg. does it use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy principles)?
- Ease of use.
Personally I might rank this question even higher, as it’s about usability and user preferences. If an app isn’t easy to use it’s not likely to be used so it’s of little value. Is it accessible to people with disabilities? Culturally relevant? Customizable? How appealing and simple would it be to use on a long term basis?
A big word that means the app can work with other electronic tools. Can you export or print data? Upload it to an electronic health record your clinician can use? Can you share the data with other apps (eg. Apple’s Health)?
By asking these five questions, you will emerge with a better idea of the desirability and legitimacy of an individual app. Then it’s a matter of trying it out to see if it’s a good fit for your needs and preferences.
Digital health is still a fairly new and developing field, but by using an evaluation tool like this you can keep up with changes and choose the most appropriate apps to benefit your mental health.