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Understanding the quality, effectiveness and attributes of top-rated smartphone health apps
  1. Hannah Wisniewski1,
  2. Gang Liu2,
  3. Philip Henson1,
  4. Aditya Vaidyam1,
  5. Narissa Karima Hajratalli3,
  6. Jukka-Pekka Onnela2,
  7. John Torous1
  1. 1 Department of Psychiatry, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2 Department of Biostatistics, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  3. 3 Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr John Torous, Department of Psychiatry, BIDMC, Harvard Medical School, Boston MA 02115, USA; jtorous{at}


Objective This study aimed to understand the attributes of popular apps for mental health and comorbid medical conditions, and how these qualities relate to consumer ratings, app quality and classification by the WHO health app classification framework.

Methods We selected the 10 apps from the Apple iTunes store and the US Android Google Play store on 20 July 2018 from six disease states: depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, addiction, diabetes and hypertension. Each app was downloaded by two authors who provided information on the apps’ attributes, functionality, interventions, popularity, scientific backing and WHO app classification rating.

Results A total of 120 apps were examined. Although none of these apps had Food and Drug Administration marketing approval, nearly 50% made claims that appeared medical. Most apps offered a similar type of services with 87.5% assigned WHO classification 1.4.2 ‘self-monitoring of health or diagnostic data by a client’ or 1.6.1 ‘client look-up of health information’. The ‘last updated’ attribute was highly correlated with a quality rating of the app although no apps features (eg, uses Global Positioning System, reminders and so on) were.

Conclusion Due to the heterogeneity of the apps, we were unable to define a core set of features that would accurately assess app quality. The number of apps making unsupported claims combined with the number of apps offering questionable content warrants a cautious approach by both patients and clinicians in selecting safe and effective ones.

Clinical Implications ‘Days since last updated’ offers a useful and easy clinical screening test for health apps, regardless of the condition being examined.

  • anxiety disorders

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  • Contributors HW and JT: formulated the study plan. HW, JT, AV, PH and NK: conducted the data gathering and coding. JT, GL and J-PO: conducted the analysis. All authors drafted, edited and approved the final manuscript.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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