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Mobile Health Tech Looks Promising, But Does It Work?

A woman checks her smartphone during a workout.
(Image credit: lzf/

Smartphone apps, health-monitoring devices and wearable sensors that collect real-time data have the potential to help Americans improve their heart health. But right now, there is not enough evidence to evaluate whether all this technology can actually change people's health behaviors, a new paper suggests.

In a new scientific statement from the American Heart Association published in the journal Circulation, a committee of heart-health experts evaluated the scientific evidence on the mobile health technologies that people might use to reduce their risk of heart disease.

"The review found that the research on mobile health technologies is still in the very early stages, and more research is needed to understand the role of mobile solutions for cardiovascular disease prevention," said Dr. Jun Ma, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a co-author of the statement.

Despite a lack of high-quality evidence on the technology's effectiveness, more than 20 percent of American adults are tracking their health with some form of technology, and one in five adults who owns a smartphone has at least one health app, the statement reports. [Best Heart Rate Monitor Apps 2015]

In the review, the committee looked at data collected from 69 studies published between 2004 and 2014 on six health behaviors that affect cardiovascular health in adults.

The findings showed that weight loss, exercise and quitting smoking are the three areas that show the most promise of actual improvements due to the use of mobile health technologies.

The review found strong evidence that text messaging that aids in self-monitoring and giving feedback helps people with short-term weight loss, when these technologies are part of a comprehensive weight-loss program. The tech may help people sustain the program's effectiveness for up to 12 months, the researchers said.

Similar to the findings on weight loss, the review found that text messaging improves a smoker's chances of quitting in the short term, but it was most effective when part of a more traditional smoking cessation program, Ma said.

Exercise apps that count steps, monitor heart rate, or measure workout intensity and duration are among the most popular health apps downloaded. Even so, the data showed there was not strong enough evidence that wearable monitoring devices, like heart-rate trackers and pedometers, help improve physical activity. Moreover, there is little research on the accuracy of these devices.

Similarly, there was insufficient evidence to draw any firm conclusions about the use of mobile technologies to control diabetes, blood pressure or cholesterol levels, the review stated.

Self-monitoring behavior

Many of the lifestyle habits that people can change to improve their heart health are behaviors that can be self-monitored with mobile technologies, the report suggests. For example, health-improvement tools can play an important role in tracking how much food people are eating, how much physical activity they are getting or the times when they crave a cigarette.

Self-monitoring can make people more conscientious about their lifestyle habits, give an individual feedback on what he or she is doing, identify areas that need to improve, and show whether improvement has occurred, Ma told Live Science.

Some advantages of turning to mobile health technologies are that these gadgets are user-friendly, portable and inexpensive, Ma said.

"There's no need to carry around a log to monitor or chart a health behavior, because many mobile apps are set up so there's little data entry needed," she noted.

Another benefit is that the platforms typically allow users to connect with other people, such as friends, a doctor or a dietitian, who can offer social support or guidance, which is not always the case with traditional forms of media, she said.

But these new tools also have some drawbacks: Despite a flood of commercial products for consumers, very little is known about the products' effectiveness or safety — that is, whether they have any unintended consequences, Ma said. 

Mobile health technology is a very active area of research, Ma said. Researchers want to better understand how and why people use mobile health devices and apps, which populations are using them, and what factors help people to maintain the use of these technologies over time. 

Even though mobile health technologies are ubiquitous, consumers who use them should know that the scientific evidence is currently not sufficient for health practitioners to make definitive recommendations about the technologies' effectiveness, Ma said.

So far, some mobile health technologies seem promising in the short term, but more research is needed on their long-term effects, because behavior change is a long-term process, she said.

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