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A Healthy Perspective – Searching and Evaluating Mobile App Technologies

Originated by: Laura Catalusci

Submitted: 26 Apr 2011

Last updated on: 26 Apr 2011

Related Health Topics: Education technology

Overview

Mobile technologies have transformed into the ultimate interactive tools and guide, especially those that are tailored to meet specific health needs. It is not uncommon to witness someone reference  mobile applications (or “apps”) on their phones, or other digital platforms for quick access to the health information they are seeking. Mobile technology can help build knowledge and empower individuals to take charge of their health (Connelly, et al., 2006) and if promoted by a health professional may lead to be better health outcomes. This presents a prime opportunity for health educators to take advantage of and utilize as part of their education techniques. Yet, when it comes to mobile applications, the task of finding the perfect tool can be daunting and may often leave someone empty-handed after the search. In addition, the vast diversity, quality, and credibility of the information apps provide can be overwhelming and inconsistent. There is one question that is always left on top of mind – Is there a better way to find and evaluate technologies such as mobile apps?

Assessment and Evaluation Tools:

While there are evaluation criteria for web-based health resources available (NCCAM, 2010), a finite amount of information and research exists on how to properly find and evaluate health-focused mobile technologies. The criteria involved in web-based health evaluation can effectively function as a starting point and foundation for building an evaluation schema for mobile technology due to the similarity in health context. However, the recommendations for searching and evaluating specifically on mobile platforms requires adaptation from traditional approaches in order to better serve the special needs of the target audience.

The result of approaching criteria adaptation through a health educator’s lens is illustrated below through the following principles and process for the search and evaluation of health-focused mobile technologies:

Search

The search for a specific mobile application may require a few steps depending on the device’s platform. There is a variety of platforms available ranging from computers and wireless devices to mobile phones. All the operating systems that the platforms are built upon add additional complexity to searches.

The starting point for searching for app begins with knowing where to look. Options include:

  • Mobile Phone Apps such as Apples iTunes App, Google’s Android App, Blackberry’s World App
  • Mobile Web Browser/Search Engines such as Google.com, Yahoo.com, Bing.com
  • Computer Search Engines such as Google.com, Yahoo.com, Bing.com
  • Device specific websites such as iTunes.com, market.android.com, appworld.blackberry.com

With search location identified start searching based on the following:

  1. Search for keywords

    Searching for key words helps to identify apps that are specific to disease states. Since most application developers and sponsors may not have health backgrounds, trying a variety of different words and combination of words can to help locate one that is specific enough to meet needs.

    Here are some tips to aid the searching process:

    Mobile Search Apps, Web Browsers and Websites:

    • Search for words on the specific health condition
      • Example for diabetes: “diabetes”
    • Search for word variations on health conditions including health literate and patient-friendly alternatives
      • Example for hypertension : “high blood pressure”

    Specifically for mobile Web Browser:

    Mobile web browsers now have special links and content at the top of the search results. The results provide a quick overview at the app’s basic details including the price, rating, and publisher (Nikolic, et al., 2010)

    • Include words specific for identifying apps
      • Examples: “app” or “download”
  2. Narrow search results

    More often than not, there will be a multitude of applications listed under generic health words and this will require either a review them all based on title and interest or narrowing of the search result. Narrowing of search results can be accomplished by:

    For all search capabilities:

    • Search for specific words on the aspect of the health condition you’d like to address
      • Examples for diabetes: “blood glucose,” “glucose,” “insulin”
    • Search for words about the functionality
      • Examples: “tracker,” “calculator,” “log,” “planner”

The next step is to evaluate it to ensure the application to determine if it will meet needs and help achieve specific goals.

Evaluation

Evaluation of health-focused mobile applications is a key measure of how effective an application can be for helping community members in terms of its overall quality, reliability and credibility. Adapting web-based health resource evaluation techniques (NCCAM, 2010) (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2010) through a health educator’s perspective for mobile provides the following guidelines to ask during evaluation:

  1. What is the purpose or objective?

    The purpose should be stated very clearly to help users identify whether or not the application will meet needs. This information may include aspects of disease state, content overview (such as education), and/or functionality (such as game, tracker, calculator, planner, etc...).

  2. What is the source of health information?

    Although the source of the health information is typically not listed as part of the description, many apps will provide this information and make it available on their website. An example is the GoMeals App, which utilizes the CalorieKing nutrition database. Remember to check out the source if it is listed to determine its quality. Applications that provide the source information tend to be more reliable and accurate with the information they provide in comparison to those who do not provide this information.

  3. How was the health information selected and reviewed?

    A new trend in mobile applications involves content expert guidance in the development, infrastructure ideation process and selection of information. Expert guidance and credentials should align with the app’s purpose and objective. For instance – for Blood Pressure Tracking, a physician specializing in cardiology would be an appropriate contributor. This type of information is usually touted on an applications website or within its description.

  4. Is the application and health information current?

    Applications and health information should be frequently updated in order to keep current. This is especially important when it comes to health guidelines and recommendations within an application setting. This information can be found on either the applications website, or within the app on the “About” screen.

  5. Who developed the application?

    A variety of developers exist for apps and they range from digital and interactive agencies to consumer product good and pharmaceutical companies. The later often serve as sponsors for the development. Understanding who developed the app can help to highlight its utilization and quality so conducting research to investigate the developer can aid in determining its overall value.

  6. Who, if any, sponsored the application’s development?

    There are both advantages and disadvantages to having an application be sponsored by an outside company. Advantages may include additional expertise during the content and infrastructure development, ensuring frequent updates to the information and technology, and association with the brand’s name. However, it is important to be aware of sponsorship bias as sponsorship may result in the over promotion of brand products. It is important to look for balance and a neutral positioning within a sponsored application.

  7. What are others saying?

    Application reviews can help to provide additional insight into its real life utility. Taking a few minutes to read through reviews provides a snapshot opinion from users that have had interaction with the application and want to share their thoughts on their experience. Opinions and experiences may vary depending on how the app meets the user’s needs so make sure to evaluate all the reviews for this reason.

Additionally, once the above questions have been answered to determine the reliability and credibility, interacting with the application will help to determine its functionality and ease of use. It is important to remember that not all apps are created equal so diligence in searching and evaluating before recommending them to others is imperative to having healthy successes.

Citations

Connelly, KH., et al. Mobile applications that empower people to monitor their personal health. e & i Elektrotechnik und Informationstechnik, Vol. 123, No. 4. (1 April 2006), pp. 124-128. https://springerlink3.metapress.com/content/483t025165626237/ resource-secured/? target=fulltext.pdf&sid=2xtkyd55x2fx5w45ecj53355&sh= www. springerlink.com

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Evaluating Web-Based Health Resources. National Institutes of Health. NCCAM Publication No. D337. April 2010. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/webresources/

Nikolic M and Hadfield P. Google Search for mobile now includes mobile app results. 2010. Available at: http://googlemobile.blogspot.com/2010/06/ google-search-for-mobile-now-includes.html

U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus Guide to Healthy Web Surfing. National Institutes of Health. July 2010. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/healthywebsurfing.html

Resources

Evaluating Internet Health Information (interactive tutorial)

Brief, 16-minute tutorial to help consumers learn how to evaluate health information on the Web. Developed by the National Library of Medicine.

Evaluating Web-Based Health Resources (website)

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) hosts this web site to help guide professionals and consumers in finding accurate health information online about complementary and alternative medicine.

MedlinePlus: Consumer Guide to Healthy Web Surfing

Straight forward tips for consumers from the National Library of Medicine for surfing the Web for health information.

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