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Are smartphone apps for cancer reliable?

Stephen Padilla
14 Oct 2020

A recent study has analysed 123 smartphone applications for cancer, among which education is the largest category for the primary function of the targeted apps, followed by disease management.

These cancer apps boast interactive features, which include the ability to track appointments, share medical records, or connect with a health provider. However, these are not fully utilized and there appears to be room for more improvement regarding support for self-monitoring functions.

“This study contributes an updated analysis of applications for cancer available in the digital health marketplace,” the researchers said. “The findings have implications for information quality and supportive resources for cancer care.”

Apps were identified from two major mobile application marketplaces (Apple iTunes: n=40; Google Play: n=83). The researchers collected, analysed, and reported the following application characteristics: mobile platform, cost, application developer affiliation, date of last update, purpose of application, content sources, and interactive features.

Half (62/123) of the apps analysed focused on general information for cancer, while 15 percent (19/123) and 7 percent (8/123) were for breast and skin cancer, respectively. One in 10 application descriptions (12/123) identified sources for application content. [Digit Health 2020;doi:10.1177/2055207620905413]

Twenty percent (25/123) of the interactive features included the ability to monitor symptoms, side effects, treatments, and chronic pain. Only four apps (3 percent) had had their content evaluated by health providers.

“To improve resources for smartphone users, more comprehensive information about both organizational affiliations and the level of health provider involvement or oversight would be enhancements to the digital health marketplace,” the researchers said.

Of note, the health app marketplace remains plagued with inadequate or insufficient online app store descriptions, and some researchers have suggested categorizing apps under the legislation for medical products to regulate and control quality. [J Cancer Res Clin Oncol 2108;144:173-181; JMIR Mhealth Uhealth 2018;16:e62]

“Without any regulations in place at the present time for health apps that provide education or monitor health, one important step would be to improve app store descriptions by providing better documentation about how app content is compiled and evaluated,” the researchers said.

In addition, the American Cancer Society urged patients to look for information about how health content is compiled to determine whether it is based on scientific facts or not. Health app marketplace descriptions could include this guidance to more clearly state if app content is based on research evidence and has been reviewed by health providers accompanied by their credentials.

Cancer-related knowledge helps patients understand, appraise, and apply health information to make smart decisions regarding their healthcare. Health apps incorporating a glossary of clearly defined cancer terms also help consumers build knowledge of new concepts and terminologies often used within the oncology community. [Ann Oncol 2018;1:30-35; J Health Commun 2017;12:999-1006]

“Future research could examine the usability of the apps and accuracy of medical content. Focus groups could provide insight into navigation and other usability features of the cancer apps. Likewise, a panel of health experts could assess the quality of medical content for apps based on the best available clinical evidence,” the researchers said.

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