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A New System to Help You Evaluate Mental Health Apps

     

There are many smartphone apps offering ways to help with your mental health. They may offer help tracking your mood or monitoring symptoms, offer information and resources, or they may offer exercises or adjunctive treatments. These apps are not regulated and most have not been rigorously studied for their effectiveness.

So if you come across a smartphone app that claims to provide some mental health benefit that interests you, how can you begin to determine if it will be useful, helpful or beneficial, and that your privacy will be protected?

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has developed an app rating system (App Evaluation Model) to assess and evaluate mental health apps. The system does not report if a particular app is good or bad, or whether it’s right for you. It offers resources to help you make an informed decision about whether to use an app.

While mental health apps may be useful and beneficial for many, APA cautions that an app can potentially cause harm. An app can offer incorrect or misleading information, or offer ineffective interventions. In addition, an app that is not secure can make personal health data vulnerable. An app may even sell personal data.

The APA app evaluation system involves five steps, each with a series of questions to help you assess the app.

Step 1 General information
Step 1 is gathering general information about the app. For example, consider who developed the app, whether there is a cost or in-app purchases required. Does the app claim to be medical?

Step 2 Privacy and security
This step focuses on potential safety issues and the protection of security and privacy. For example, look at what data are collected and what is shared. Can you opt-out of data collection or delete data? Are data maintained on the device or the web (i.e., “the cloud”)? Both? What security measures are in place? Are data encrypted? The app’s privacy policy should answer these questions. If there is no privacy policy, that raises serious concerns.

Step 3 Evidence
App developers often make claims even though there is currently little research or evidence to support the claims. This does not mean that apps don’t work, just that there is much we do not know. Several questions and information sources can help you consider an app’s function and benefits. For example, what does it claim to do vs. what does it actually do? Is there peer-reviewed, published evidence about tool or science behind it? Is there any feedback from users to support claims ( such as the app store, website, review sites, etc.)?

Step 4 Ease of Use
An app is only as useful if it is practical. Ease of use is subjective – different people will have very different ideas about ease of use. A couple of things to consider: Is it easy to access and would it be easy to use over the long-term? Are features of the app customizable? Does it need an Internet connection to work?

Step 5 Interoperability
Interoperability is the ability of different systems to share data. This may be important or useful with some apps, for example apps that track moods or help manage medication. Consider

  • Who “owns” the data? (Do you? Does the app developer?)
  • Can you print out or export/download your data?
  • Can the app share data with other user data tools (e.g., Apple HealthKit, FitBit®)?

There is no specific minimum criteria necessary for an app to be considered “good” or “useful.” That is an individual decision, but these steps and questions can help you make an informed decision.

     

 

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