A new study finds that many mobile health apps for cancer survivors don’t address the needs of cancer survivors nor go through proper development and testing.

Mobile apps have the potential to provide value and increase quality of life for cancer survivors, but few apps are doing so today, a new study finds.

The Cancer Prevention Institution of California authored the study “Achieving value in mobile health applications for cancer survivors” and The Journal of Cancer Survivorship published the study in March. The researchers began the study in January 2016 and reviewed 32 articles from biomedical literature database PubMed about mobile apps for cancer survivors.

The study found that while more than 200,000 health apps exist and there are hundreds of mobile apps for cancer survivors, few are based on clinical research with a large sample set that measures long-term outcomes. In fact, many apps for cancer survivors are geared toward fundraising, promoting charities or raising awareness about cancer.

“While the potential for smartphone applications to benefit cancer survivors is promising, the evidence in the current literature is limited by this lack of rigorous research,” Dr. Ingrid Oakley-Girvan, the lead researcher for the study, writes in the report.

Apps can benefit cancer survivors because they can be personalized to each user, such as their treatment history, exercise ability, age, cognitive flexibly and health goals, and they are easily accessible to patients and don’t require them to travel. Plus, there is a need to improve cancer survivor outcomes, as there are more than 14 million cancer survivors in the U.S. who may experience long-term side effects from cancer treatment, Oakley-Girvan says.


The study, however, finds that few apps are thoroughly tested before being made public. Plus, even if a mobile app is based on research with an adequate sample size to test the outcomes of a target population, usually the period of time is too short. This is misleading, Oakley-Girvan says, as patients may just be using the app for its novelty and may stop using it after a few months.

The study also finds that there is no standard development and testing strategies for creating mobile health apps for cancer survivors. Oakley-Girvan suggests the following standardization:

  • Identify system requirements through literature review, involvement of users, including medical staff as well as patients or survivors through interviews, advisory or focus groups
  • Test user interface, usability, acceptability with target population
  • Test usability, acceptability with target population
  • Use outcome measures with population norms or clinical cutoffs
  • Tailor to individual treatment history, stage of readiness, ability, age, goals, language and culture
  • Health promotional applications must also teach self-management skills, create social supports, and enhance self-efficacy
  • With adequately powered sample size, test impact and cost with target population over a period of time

In a rush to get an app to market, many healthcare providers skips basic development and testing steps, however, this doesn’t have to be the case, Oakley-Girvan says.

“By its nature mobile health development work can proceed more rapidly than medication based clinical trials,” Oakley-Girvan tells Internet Health Management. “Iteration and use of an adaptive trials approach during the development phase may also facilitate value.” The data captured in real time in a field test can further improve the app design, she says.

If a healthcare provider wants to quickly get an app for cancer survivors to market, that doesn’t mean it has to develop it in house, Oakley-Girvan says. For example, a healthcare provider could hire a company that specializes in developing apps, or work with a company that provides HIPAA compliant platforms, she says.