Journal of Medical Internet Research
Vol 18, No 11 (2016): November
Mobile Health (mhealth)
Can Mobile Phone Apps Influence People’s Health Behavior Change? An Evidence Review
J Med Internet Res 2016 (Nov 02); 18(11):e287
Jing Zhao, Becky Freeman, Mu Li
Background: Globally, mobile phones have achieved wide reach at an unprecedented rate, and mobile phone apps have become increasingly prevalent among users. The number of health-related apps that were published on the two leading platforms (iOS and Android) reached more than 100,000 in 2014. However, there is a lack of synthesized evidence regarding the effectiveness of mobile phone apps in changing people’s health-related behaviors. Objective: The aim was to examine the effectiveness of mobile phone apps in achieving health-related behavior change in a broader range of interventions and the quality of the reported studies. Methods: We conducted a comprehensive bibliographic search of articles on health behavior change using mobile phone apps in peer-reviewed journals published between January 1, 2010 and June 1, 2015. Databases searched included Medline, PreMedline, PsycINFO, Embase, Health Technology Assessment, Education Resource Information Center (ERIC), and Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL). Articles published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research during that same period were hand-searched on the journal’s website. Behavior change mechanisms were coded and analyzed. The quality of each included study was assessed by the Cochrane Risk of Bias Assessment Tool. Results: A total of 23 articles met the inclusion criteria, arranged under 11 themes according to their target behaviors. All studies were conducted in high-income countries. Of these, 17 studies reported statistically significant effects in the direction of targeted behavior change; 19 studies included in this analysis had a 65% or greater retention rate in the intervention group (range 60%-100%); 6 studies reported using behavior change theories with the theory of planned behavior being the most commonly used (in 3 studies). Self-monitoring was the most common behavior change technique applied (in 12 studies). The studies suggest that some features improve the effectiveness of apps, such as less time consumption, user-friendly design, real-time feedback, individualized elements, detailed information, and health professional involvement. All studies were assessed as having some risk of bias. Conclusions: Our results provide a snapshot of the current evidence of effectiveness for a range of health-related apps. Large sample, high-quality, adequately powered, randomized controlled trials are required. In light of the bias evident in the included studies, better reporting of health-related app interventions is also required. The widespread adoption of mobile phones highlights a significant opportunity to impact health behaviors globally, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.