There are more than 280 apps available to help patients and providers better manage diabetes. But only 11 or so have actually been extensively studied and only five apps thus far have actually shown measureable results.

There are more than 280 apps available to help patients and providers better manage diabetes. But only 11 or so have actually been extensively studied and only five apps thus far have actually shown measureable results.

That’s the main conclusion of a new study of mobile apps for diabetes management from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More than 30 million Americans have type 1 or type 2 diabetes and apps can be a useful tool in patient care, especially at home.

But of the nearly 300 Apple and Android apps available for download, only 11 apps have been significantly researched by healthcare clinicians and only five—Glucose Buddy and Diabeo Telesage for type 1 diabetes and Blue Star, WellTang and Gather Health for diabetes—have shown real results that have helped patients better treat and manage their disease by losing weight, improving their diet, monitoring diabetes at home or getting more exercise.

“Although consumers have access to dozens of apps for diabetes management, only a handful of these technologies have been evaluated,” says Gopal Khanna, director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. “Because diabetes patients rely on these apps to manage their health, and so many apps have not yet been studied, there is a compelling need for improvement.”

The apps are only valuable if people can use them.

In 2017, there were more than 318,000 mobile health applications available to consumers worldwide and 13 diabetes apps accounted for 16% of the total number of disease-specific apps available to consumers and second only to mental health apps, the government says. Diabetes apps vary in the functions they provide, including tracking blood glucose measurements, nutrition database and carbohydrate tracking, physical activity and weight tracking, sharing data with clinicians or others, and for messages and appointment reminders.

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But there is considerable variability in how mobile apps are designed and used in care. Some apps only provide a single function, while others provide a group of functions. Mobile apps can be delivered as a stand-alone app, through an app and Web site combination, or through a Web site alone. Availability of apps also varies by the types of device and operating systems required, says the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Some, but not all, apps are configured for multiple devices and operating
systems and mobile apps vary in the extent to which they connect to other aspects of patient care. For example, some apps are designed to be used within an online patient portal, where patients and clinicians can exchange messages or other health information, while others connect to the patient’s electronic medical record. Some apps also connect directly to medical devices, such as blood glucose meters, which automatically upload information to the app.

Some apps are more useful than others. Off the 11 apps with measurable results and using a rating scale of 1-100, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality,  Glucose Buddy for type 1 diabetes scored a rating of 76, but another app for medication reminders, Deebee, only scored a 65.

Researchers also tested the usability of apps and found that patients may have difficulty using some of them. In addition, some have questionable or non-existent privacy policies. “The apps are only valuable if people can use them,” says Stephanie Chang, director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s evidence-based practice center program. “Because apps like these are becoming part of everyday life, people should also be aware of who might eventually see their health care data and how it will be used.”

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