The National Institutes of Health is setting a goal of providing rigorous evidence for using some types of mobile healthcare technologies to enhance health promotion and disease prevention.

NIH has included this target in its 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, particularly focusing on tools or interventions for chronic diseases. This new goal set by the federal health research organization is significant because it has a long history of supporting mHealth research through grants that aim to contribute to the evidence base for the use of mobile technology.

Despite the promise of mobile technology to improve patient outcomes, the paucity of clinical trial data and the lack of an evidence base remain critical challenges for the widespread adoption of mHealth technologies.

“The problem is a lack of hard, clinical evidence of health outcomes,” says Paul Krebs, assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at New York University School of Medicine. “There’s one diabetes app for which there was evidence found for it, but that’s one out of 40,000 available in the Apple iTunes store—certainly not the ones that are most popular and used by millions of people.”

Although evidence is critically necessary for mHealth to achieve its potential to transform healthcare, there’s little hard evidence for health apps, limiting enthusiasm and perceived value among both consumers and providers, Krebs says.

Also See: Critical Problems Remain for Future of Health Apps

Krebs believes that recommendations by providers could be influential in promoting health app adoption, but his research indicates that few clinicians currently prescribe health apps for patients. Providers need clinical trial evidence if they are to feel comfortable that they are making sound recommendations for their patients.

To be truly accepted by healthcare professionals, apps will require clinical trial evidence in line with standard academic medical practices, and Krebs argues that well-designed clinical trials are necessary to examine the efficacy of health apps to broaden their appeal and adoption.

This call for evidence is echoed by Teresa Wang, strategy manager at Rock Health, which supports early- stage digital health companies. Wang says the current lack of mHealth evidence may explain why only 17 percent of the population is currently tracking a key health factor via a mobile app, which Rock Health’s found as part of a survey of more than 4,000 individuals conducted this past summer.

“We’re waiting to see the iconic mobile health app that everyone has on their smartphone. It will require a lot of things to match up. There has to be a use case that consumers are open to, find value in, and are willing to pay for,” Wang says.

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