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How to Choose Health Care Apps

October 2011

Karen Ensle EdD, RD, FADA, CFCS
Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Want to take small steps toward improved health? Consider using an app (Web enabled application program). Searching your computer or hand-held device for a health app can be challenging because most apps are not reviewed by medical or health experts. Quality apps are hard to find because many companies are eager to sell their apps and they don’t take time to conduct a study to see if users adopt suggested behavior changes. Here are some tips when choosing health apps:

  • Set Realistic Expectations - Think of health apps as tools that complement what is being done offline. Before downloading, consumers need to figure out what they need to do to achieve their health goals and then how the app might help.
  • Avoid Apps That Promise Everything - Beware of apps that promise big, fast results. Research indicates that most consumers cannot change a behavior overnight or even in a week or two. An app that promises quick weight loss or quitting smoking for good by the end of a month is probably not going to give you the desired results.
  • Research App Developers - There are many questionable apps developed by good designers who aren’t experts in health or behavior change. Be sure to look in the app store or on the app’s website to see who developed it. Follow these suggestions when checking out the developers. Find out: (1) whether they have designed other health apps (2) whether they consulted health professionals or they themselves are health professionals and (3) whether reputable health care organizations endorse the app.
  • Select Apps That Use Familiar Health Models - Beware if an app uses unusual strategies to improve the users’ health. The most effective behavior change strategies are based on years of research and are generally those your health care professional would recommend.
  • Follow App Recommendations - App recommendations need to be followed carefully. Look for apps that are easy and convenient to use. Testing different apps allows consumers to learn about their personal preferences while finding an effective one or offline solution to their health issues.
  • Select Reliable Mobile and Web Apps
    • Exercise Apps
      • Exercise Counts Calculator (American Cancer Society): Web
      • Loops (Livestrong): Web
      • MyStart! (American Heart Association): Web
      • Target Heart Rate Calculator (American Cancer Society): Web
      • Walking Paths (American Heart Association): Web

    • Nutrition Apps
      • Calorie Counter (American Cancer Society): Web
      • Calorie Tracker (Livestrong): Blackberry/iPhone/iPad
      • Daily Food Plan (U.S. Dept of Agriculture):Web
      • The Daily Plate (Livestrong): Web
      • My Food-a-Pedia (U.S. Dept of Agriculture): Web/Mobile web
      • Text-2-Eat (Livestrong): Text messaging
    • Weight Management Apps
      • BMI Calculator (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute): iPhone/Web
    • General Health Information
      • CDC Health Tips (Center for Disease Control): Text messaging
    • Risk Assessment Tools
      • Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool (National Cancer Institute): Web/Mobile web
      • Cancer Risk Check (MD Anderson): Web
      • Colorectal Risk Assessment Tool (National Cancer Institute): Web
      • Melanoma Risk Assessment Tool (National Cancer Institute): Web/Mobile web
      • My Life Check (American Heart Association): Web