Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

Health apps lack health focus, finds UNC study

Steve Rogerson
October 16, 2018



Many voice-activated health and fitness apps have no clear health or fitness focus, according to a study by the University of North Carolina.
 
Hands-free voice-activated assistants and their associated devices have recently gained popularity with the release of commercial products, including Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
 
“Voice-activated assistants have many potential use cases in healthcare including education, health tracking and monitoring, and assistance with locating health providers,” according to Arlene Chung (pictured) from the university’s school of medicine, who authored the paper. “However, little is known about the types of health and fitness apps available for voice-activated assistants as it is an emerging market.”
 
The study, which was published in JMIR Health and uHealth medical informatics journal, described a review that examined the characteristics of health and fitness apps for commercially available, hands-free voice-activated assistants, including Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
 
Amazon Alexa Skills Store and Google Assistant app were searched to find voice-activated assistant apps designated by vendors as health and fitness apps. Information was extracted for each app including name, description, vendor, vendor rating, user reviews and ratings, cost, developer and security policies, and the ability to pair with a smartphone app and web site and device.
 
Two reviewers independently coded each app using the vendor’s descriptions and the app name into one or more health and fitness, intended age group, and target audience categories. A third reviewer adjudicated coding disagreements until consensus was reached. Descriptive statistics were used to summarise app characteristics.
 
Overall, 309 apps were reviewed; health education apps (87) were the most commonly occurring, followed by fitness and training (72), nutrition (33), brain training and games (31), and health monitoring (25). Diet and calorie tracking apps were infrequent. Apps were mostly targeted towards adults and a general audiences with few specifically geared towards patients, caregivers or medical professionals. Most apps were free to enable or use and 18.1% could be paired with a smartphone app and web site and device; 30.7% of vendors provided privacy policies and 22.3% provided terms of use.
 
Most (85.7%) Amazon Alexa apps were rated by the vendor as mature or guidance suggested, which were geared towards adults only. When there was a user rating available, apps had a wide range of ratings from one to five stars with a mean of 2.97. Google Assistant apps did not have user reviews available, whereas most Amazon Alexa apps had at least one to nine reviews available.
 
Researchers found that many apps did not provide a clear health focus despite being labelled as such. Most were found to be focused on health education or fitness. Very few targeted patients, caregivers, older adults or those with disabilities – populations that may benefit most from this technology. Additionally, apps for monitoring health and wellness were rare.
 
“The emerging market of health and fitness apps for voice-activated assistants is still nascent and mainly focused on health education and fitness,” said Chung. “Voice-activated assistant apps had a wide range of content areas but many published in the health and fitness categories did not actually have a clear health or fitness focus. This may, in part, be due to Amazon and Google policies, which place restrictions on the delivery of care or direct recording of health data. As in the mobile app market, the content and functionalities may evolve to meet growing demands for self-monitoring and disease management.”
 
Other authors included Ashley Griffin, Daria Selezneva and David Gotz from the UNC’s school of information and library science.