Mobile phone health apps: how useful are they really?

A woman in sports gear looks at her mobile phone

Apps that claim to treat everything from pimples to depression appeal to the anxiety many of us harbour about our health.

But how trustworthy are they, and what’s the evidence behind their effectiveness?

Can your smartphone track your mental health?

Your smartphone knows a lot about you, but what about your mental health?

Associate Professor Carol Maher, a researcher in mobile health apps from the University of South Australia, says there’s a few basic principles people can follow when choosing which health app to download.

Health apps that use your smartphone to journal or monitor progress over time are probably the least worrisome, she says.

These apps can be useful because they make it easier to communicate problems with your doctor; often they allow you to record photos or documentation you can take to an appointment for instance.

But you should be wary of an app if it’s claiming to use the phone as a medical device, Professor Maher says.

“It’s one thing if it’s a device that plugs into the phone — like there now are some approved glucose monitors. Those devices, so long as they’re reputable, are fine,” she said.

There is also an app with a plug-in accessory that can produce a simplified ECG or heart rhythm trace that is still detailed enough to diagnose abnormal heart rhythms, for instance.

But several years ago, thousands of copies of apps that claimed to zap pimples using the light of a phone were sold, before they were pulled from stores.

Other apps have claimed to treat seasonal affective disorder by exposing the user to the phone’s flashlight, despite little evidence a phone’s light can provide effective treatment.

“It’s apps like that [to be wary of], that generally have no evidence they work,” Professor Maher said.

What about other types of app? We took a look at four of the most common varieties on app stores.

Mental health

Apps that aim to help with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues have proliferated on app stores in recent years.

Choosing a good mental health app

Some tips from Black Dog Institute:

  • See if the app — or at least the principles it uses — is based in evidence
  • Be aware a high app rating doesn’t necessarily mean high quality.
  • Look at who developed the app and consider whether they have a background or reputation in mental health.
  • Check if the app has an adequate privacy policy.

That’s a good thing because it’s pulled down barriers that may once have prevented people from accessing helpful services, says David Bakker, a researcher and app developer from Monash University.

“These apps offer some interventions people wouldn’t be able to access otherwise, because they live in an area where they can’t easily see a psychologist, or they have life circumstances where they can’t see a psychologist,” he said.

While some trials suggest they can be useful, there’s not a strong body of evidence around their effectiveness because the area is so new.

Mr Bakker says a good approach is to look for apps that are based on proven treatment methods (like cognitive behavioural therapy) and endorsed by psychologists or reputable sources (like mental health organisations).


Living in the sunburnt country means many Australians are particularly careful of taking care of their skin, and there are apps that claim to help with this.

The most common purport to analyse photos of your moles and skin lesions to work out if they pose a risk to your health or could be a melanoma.

A 2014 analysis of the effectiveness of a melanoma-detecting mobile app found the computer could recognise skin cancer 73 per cent of the time, compared with a dermatologist’s 88 per cent success rate.

The app could work out who didn’t have a melanoma 83 per cent of the time — while specialists could do it 97 per cent of the time.

A year earlier, another study looking at four smartphone apps found three of them incorrectly classified up to 30 per cent of melanomas as “unconcerning”.

Professor Maher says something as serious as a possible melanoma requires a doctor’s visit.

“They can be quite dangerous because it can be very inaccurate, compared with a doctor who’s a specialist with specialised equipment,” she said.