How to make better health apps

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In today’s connected world, digital products need to seduce, excite and entertain to keep our attention. There is an app for everything: order a shared ride, do the shopping and even keep an eye on your house. We cannot deny that this technology inspires us to keep innovating. It removes friction from our daily lives and makes connecting more efficient and easier. The dark side, however, is that some of these apps are made to keep us hooked.

In recent years, we have seen a saturation of apps focused on wellness and mental health, as there is a need for the accessibility they provide. However, many of these tools are created in a hurry and without considering the potential impact on users’ lives. The underlying goal is to keep consumers on the app as much as possible by conditioning users to rely on the app to make them feel better — obsessed with likes, follower count, and refresh news feeds.

What if the tech industry changed the paradigm by keeping authenticity at the forefront through more intentional creation, rather than providing users with a “quick fix”? The good news is that there are steps that both the technology industry and consumers can take to avoid falling victim to the creation and use of these addictive apps.

The perfect storm: combining convenience and self-diagnosis

At the start of the pandemic, there was significant investment in telemedicine start-ups as the government waived office visits for controlled substance prescriptions to help with diagnoses such as ADHD — and telehealth apps made huge use of this chance. Over the span of months, consumers were convinced that a 30-second video could diagnose them with ADHD or give them access to services that would prescribe drugs for it.

When the telehealth boom peaked, it also caused more people to share their experiences of neurodiversity on social media platforms. While social media can be a space to build community and support, it has also turned neurodiversity into something of a fad. On TikTok, which has become the go-to resource for a younger audience to find information about neurodiversity, the hashtag “ADHD” alone has more than 14 billion views — many of which come from viral videos of misinformation and stereotyped insight. . Despite the good intentions, conversations about these apps can create barriers for the 70 million people with learning and thinking differences by preventing them from getting the help they need or perpetuating stigma.

While some of these telehealth companies have recently come under scrutiny for reckless prescribing of ADHD medications with little supervision, their impact has been deep-rooted and long-lasting. They have identified a pain point and unmet needs around assessments and access, which is why there is so much talk about it on these platforms. While we need the speed that telehealth apps have come to provide, providing access cannot and should not be addictive when it comes to people’s health.

Health apps: prioritizing people over profit

Apps can be harmful when used to optimize for profit only under the guise of granting access. Companies should exercise caution when creating products that don’t serve the interests of the community, and makers of these apps should take a moment to evaluate how accessibility and speed can be combined with credibility and the inherent desire to help people. .

Anything that prefers the quick fix or answer to taking more responsibility with the individual’s life is dangerous. It can lead people astray, make them feel worse, or lead them to mishandle real problems.

Before scaling digital solutions, companies should conduct clinical trials to ensure their products are evidence-based and have no long-term impact. They also need to continuously collect user feedback so that they can get ahead of any course corrections. In medicine, “do no harm” is a core principle for many physicians, and the main goal of health technology companies should always be to better serve the patient and do what is best for the individual, not the end result.

Consumer research

While it is the responsibility of the tech companies to do better, there are also actions consumers can take.

Consumers should evaluate what exactly they want to achieve by turning to these services or apps that support their learning and thinking differences. Aspects to look out for include a solid vetting process where healthcare professionals are heavily scrutinized and increased platform quality where provider sites are HIPAA compliant. The most important thing to keep in mind: don’t look for quick fixes of any kind. Which solutions and options are proposed? Are there forums and experts available, or is prescription medication the only option?

It is also helpful for consumers to think about their own app usage and be aware of how they feel. If they feel more anxious or addicted after using the app repeatedly, it may be time to take a break. Focus on getting the help they need, then put the phone down and engage in conversation with the outside world instead.

Telehealth companies, social media and other behavioral health apps aren’t going anywhere. If anything, we will see a continued push for innovation in medicine and technology through similar products in the future. While these breakthroughs are pushing us to act faster and think more deeply about how people can access care, there are clear and valid concerns. As technology leaders, we must put people at the heart of what we do. They entrust us with their health. It’s up to us to help them, not hurt them.

Jenny Wu is the co-president and chief product officer at Got it.org.

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