How Apps Influence Health Choices

The past few years have seen a massive increase in the use of mobile apps for health and wellness purposes. The sector even has its own name; mobile health or mHealth. By 2025, the global mobile health market is forecast to be worth in excess of $300 billion US. In the first quarter of 2021, more than 53,000 Android health apps were already available, with new ones coming to market all the time.

There are several factors driving this growing market, with the recent pandemic being the latest to give the sector a boost. However, even before COVID-19 drove more people than ever to download health apps, mHealth was already a well-established phenomenon. Now healthcare professionals are actively looking to apps as a way to help people improve health outcomes in a variety of areas.

We will look at the way this technology is being applied in healthcare, including the idea of ​​gamification.

The wellness revolution

In the beginning, most health apps focused on the rather general idea of ​​wellness. Rather than targeting particular health conditions, the purpose of these apps was to improve physical and mental health overall. Mobile health emerged in tandem with a global interest in health and wellness, as promoted by numerous online influencers who promised to fix your body and mind through diet, exercise, and meditation.

Many people will be familiar with physical fitness apps, and around a third of American adults use them frequently. These can be for every kind of physical activity imaginable, with running being one of the most popular. Apps like Map My Run, Couch to 5K, and Runkeeper have been downloaded millions of times. Most have a free version and paid subscription packages for more features.

Opening up about mental health

Two of the most popular mental health apps are Headspace and Calm, both of which encourage meditation and mindfulness. Around the world, but especially in the US and other Western nations, attitudes towards mental health have become more open, with a growing number of people acknowledging the importance of psychological self-care. Even so, stigma remains in many cases, and there is a global insufficiency of access to traditional mental healthcare providers.

Considering that more than 10% of the world’s population live with some form of mental health condition, it is no wonder that apps like Calm and Headspace are so popular. They provide a supplement to professional services, or even replace them entirely where such services are scarce and social stigma is present. Experts are generally in favor of such mHealth services, although some caution that there is little regulation around any mental health applications.

Find our top 10 meditation and relaxation apps for Android.

The gamification element

Mobile health and wellness apps can play an important role in modern healthcare, especially if there is a gap between the needs of the users and the external services available to them. Unfortunately, without the supervision of healthcare professionals, sticking to a program can be tough. Many users start strong but lose focus and motivation over time.

One effective way to combat user fatigue is with gamification. Even if you are unfamiliar with the word, chances are you know the concept. Take an activity, such as running or yoga, that does not usually include any elements of a game, and add some. Developers use the data that is fed into the system, such as miles run or health markers like heart rate, to create goals and competition. Users get rewards for hitting targets and prevailing over others, creating an environment that encourages prolonged and meaningful engagement.

Experiments with gamification have yielded some compelling results. One psychological study showed that even a small reward was enough to virtually eliminate political biases in test subjects with strong political ideologies. Gamification is clearly a powerful tool, and when it is added to health apps the results are evident. Still, it can be abused, too. Most apps use gamification to lock in their users in patterns of behavior that aren’t beneficial to them. The best example are the casino apps. People can spend thousands of USD in a no limit casino app without proper oversight. This way, not only financial ruin ensues but also related mental problems follow, due to the life destroying properties of the game.

Gamification can go beyond the classical elements, creating mHealth services that are seemingly almost all game. An interesting example of this is the running app Zombies, Run! This plays more like a computer game, where the motivating factor is a storyline where the user runs to escape from zombies. The difference being, of course, that instead of sitting in front of a screen the participant is actively trying to evade her undead pursuers. This app was one of our top choices among fitness apps.

Targeted mobile health

Most existing health apps were created by private enterprises, primarily for the ultimate purpose of making money. While they may be very beneficial for many people, they were designed for a large and wide audience and therefore rarely targeted more specific health concerns. More recently, some startups have started to focus on individual health problems that still affect a large number of people.

One such widespread health issue is diabetes. An estimated 422 million people currently live with the condition, and the number is rising rapidly. There are three leading apps to monitor and manage diabetes; mySugr, Glooko, and Livongo, which between them serve around 4.5 million patients. In 2017 the market leader mySugr was acquired by healthcare multinational Roche.

Each of these apps has a different business model, but all three are for profit. Glooko, for example, charges an annual subscription fee, while mySugr operates on a freemium model and by licensing equipment to healthcare providers. All three of these digital health services have received recognition, and many health insurers recognize them as effective tools for managing diabetes.

Diabetes is a chronic condition which requires constant attention, and so an app is a very appropriate aid to management. This is just one example of digital health, however. Today, many users have apps to keep an eye on heart conditions and other chronic illnesses. More generally, millions use apps to regulate sleep, track menstruation and fertility, manage diet and nutrition, and much more.

As good as it sounds?

There is no doubt that digital health and mHealth gamification are both important tools in the challenging area of ​​managing patients’ conditions. As the population continues to increase, the pressure on services benefits will only get worse, and health apps have the potential to provide real while easing the strain on doctors and others in the medical field.

Sadly, it seems like many people are still unwilling to use health apps, even when they could be of great benefit. There are many reasons for this reluctance, although a major factor seems to be that many would only use an app if it was specifically recommended by a doctor.

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