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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Health Apps

Innovation Analalysis

Thematic area: Technology, society, innovation
Analytical approach: Innovation analyses
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment
Status: completed
Duration: 2016 till 2017

Subject and objective of the project

Apps (short for application software) increasingly determine many people’s everyday life. The offer on the global market covers almost all kinds of topics and areas of life. More and more often, people are using apps with the aim of positively influencing their health. Besides medical apps which are primarily offered for expert personnel in medicine and healthcare or for people with chronic diseases, numerous health apps are meanwhile available for the general public for acquiring and evaluating health data quickly and conveniently in everyday life.

Health apps are run on mobile devices, usually on smartphones. In addition, other devices can be used, e. g. so-called wearables which are worn close to the body. These include e. g. activity trackers, fitness wristbands and running watches. The apps collect, process and visualise health-related data. These can be data on nutritional values (calories), quantities and composition of the food consumed, alcohol, coffee or water, but also body data such as step count, pulse, blood sugar/glucose, breathing or quality of sleep. Moreover, the data collected and processed by health apps include measurements of physical activity – such as sport, sleep or sex – as well as emotional or mental well-being. Health apps also request data that cannot always be derived from the range of functions, e. g. user identity, WLAN connections or location.

Against this background, the TAB innovation study »Health Apps« focuses on the following central questions: Which technological and socio-economic trends characterise the development and use of health apps? Which kinds of health apps are offered and which categorisation approaches are used? What are the legal basics for the development and use of health apps? What are the value and benefits of health apps from the stakeholders’ points of views? What positions can be identified in the scientific and social debate? Which political options for action can be derived from the findings?

Results

Due to the increased performance of smartphones and wearables, health apps can collect more and more qualified health data and analyse them in a context-sensitive way. Technical progress has been made with regard to sensors used in mobile devices, currently in particular in the field of biosensors and so-called micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS). On the one hand, these technical innovations make it possible to record data which previously could not be recorded and thus expand the range of applications for health apps accordingly. On the other hand, there are some advantages due to the higher measuring accuracy of the sensors: The more accurate, reliable and robust the sensors, the higher the quality of the recorded health data and thus that of the health apps. Concepts for further developing the technological functionality of health apps can be found mainly in the fields of interoperability, artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing.

Currently, the economic potential of health apps primarily lies in their ability to offer simple, easy-to-use everyday support options for health-related behaviour to as many people as possible. For the time being, the question of whether health apps have sufficient potential for supplementing standard healthcare services is still open. Besides the difficulties of placing apps on the primary healthcare market, the unwillingness to spend money on apps on the secondary healthcare market inhibits the economic potential regarding the development or market launch of health apps. Potential approaches for the further development of health apps are above all a new active understanding of people's health and an individualisation of lifestyles. Against the background of demographic change, the target groups of health apps increasingly not only include people interested in sports, fitness and health, but also people with chronic diseases or health impairments. These target groups represent growing needs and thus a growing economic demand potential. Last but not least, the health apps are considered to be an opportunity to focus more on user orientation in the healthcare sector and to concentrate on people's healthcare needs with regard to living a good life.

The results of the innovation analysis illustrate that – despite the fact that health apps are widely spread – there is a lack of reliable evidence regarding a preventive or health-promoting effect of these apps. Experts criticise a lack of content-related data quality and usability as well as deficits in the field of data protection. The main problem is whether the statutory provisions are implemented and whether compliance with these provisions is controlled by the providers of health apps. This is also confirmed by the results of the survey conducted within the framework of the Stakeholder Panel TA: With about 75 % of the respondents – in particular employees of consumer protection organisations – a large part is of the opinion that health apps (as they are currently offered on the market) violate the personal rights of users. In this context, it is important to note that the stakeholders surveyed give high priority to social principles such as privacy and informational self-determination: If the data are used by third parties and allow conclusions to be drawn about people’s health behaviour, health apps are generally rejected. From the point of view of all respondents, however, the benefit of health apps is generally assessed quite positively. Thus, 60 % of respondents believe that health apps encourage people to adopt a healthier lifestyle and that the use of health apps increases people’s ability to make decisions in their everyday lives that have a positive impact on their health.

Whether and to what extent health apps can contribute to exploit the potential opportunities highly depends on the quality of the apps offered, the safeguarding of privacy and data protection, cultural and ethical bases for evaluation and, last but not least, on the skills of the users. The available health apps are also considered to have insufficient user relevance in terms of a lack of quality. For this reason, the needs of the different user groups should be analysed and included in the development of quality criteria. Moreover, a rapid integration of high-quality health apps could also be supported by promoting alliances between established companies in the healthcare sector and technology companies in order to strengthen the mobile health sector (mHealth) and the health app market by combining the expertise of both parties.

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