The UK’s National Institute of Clinical and Healthcare Excellence (NICE) has published draft guidelines that could cement smartphone apps’ role in public health going forward. From sexual health to dieting, NICE is signalling that digital apps have a role to play in helping people make healthy choices.

Despite the dry name, Behaviour Change: Digital and Mobile Health Interventions is potentially a big deal, not just in the UK, but internationally. If digital tools for behaviour change can reduce demand for (far more costly) face-to-face consultations with doctors and other professionals, the payoffs for healthcare systems everywhere could be enormous.

The guidelines are currently in draft, pending stakeholder review until March. When adopted, they could open the door to more wellness apps being recommended or prescribed (read: paid for) by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), and beyond. Though the document stops short of naming specific apps, it sets out the factors that should be considered when recommending a particular one. These include things like the suitability of the content, its use of personal data, whether it needs Internet access to work, and so on.

But the recommendations come with some stings in the tail. Notably, the committee that developed them can’t say with certainty that apps actually change behaviour for the better. This statement from page 13 couldn’t be clearer:

There is poor evidence that digital and mobile health interventions may be effective for behaviour change – and not enough to suggest that they can be used instead of other services.

This is quite a damning indictment of what has become a multi-billion dollar industry – I’m thinking of fitness trackers in particular – which has been around for upwards of a decade. The fact its case is still unproven is, frankly, staggering.

There is also concern that apps might push people too far in the opposite direction (e.g. encouraging eating disorders or over-exercise). NICE also observes that many app developers lack healthcare sector experience. The organisation wants to see more apps that are developed with the interests of end-user communities in mind – and ideally developed jointly with both them and clinicians.

On balance, however, these guidelines look like they could the making of a new market for digital health apps. Despite the lack of evidence to date, they make the case for the right apps to be given serious consideration alongside existing forms of support. They note that apps could succeed where conventional approaches have shortcomings – for example, helping people track their progress towards an exercise or abstinence goal.

The question now is how the marketplace will respond.

Behaviour change: digital and mobile health interventions is open for consultation until 6th March 2020, with final recommendations expected at the beginning of August. Individuals or organisations can register online to present their views.

Reblogged from LinkedIn.