Study: Professional, consumer opinions differ on mental health app quality

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Researchers found low agreement between professionals’ and consumers’ reviews of mental health apps.

The study, published in JMIR, assessed 11 mental health apps using web surveys administered between December 2020 and April 2021. The apps assessed included Breethe, Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer Meditation, MindDoc, MindShift, Reflectly, Remente, Sanvello, Self-Help for Anxiety and Woebot.

The consumer reviewers reported a history of mental health problems, and they were asked to download three of the chosen apps and use them for three days. Ratings from the 21 consumers were then compared with established ratings from clinicians and academics.

Overall, researchers found more than half of the app ratings showed disagreement between the study participants and the professional ratings. Professionals gave the app higher star ratings and were more likely to recommend apps to others compared with the consumer reviewers. 

One of the most important themes discussed by the study participants was cost, as many were frustrated when they reached a paywall or needed to pay for premium content. They also valued the ability to track and measure their progress as well as access to educational content, like information on coping mechanisms or symptoms. 

“Participants placed a great deal of importance on app functionality, and most themes generated through the qualitative analysis were related to this aspect. They appreciated a variety of features, which were easy to use, interactive and with the capacity for personalization,” the study’s authors wrote. “Aesthetics were also very important, as our participants emphasized the importance of a professional layout, with engaging colors and a simple structure. The highest number of participant negatives was for the domain ‘difficulties of use,’ suggesting that current professional ratings are overestimating the ease with which the apps can be used.”

WHY IT MATTERS

The researchers noted some limitations with the study. Though they asked participants about whether they had used mental health apps in the past, they didn’t ask whether they’d use the specific apps used in the study. Participants also reported general mental health concerns, but not specific diagnoses, which could be useful for further research.

The study’s authors said more studies could use a larger and more diverse sample of users and focus on different categories of apps. This research used mental wellness apps, not digital therapeutics. They noted future studies could evaluate how well people understand those categories and the distinctions between those types of apps.

However, researchers argued their study demonstrated professional reviews may not focus enough on issues that are important to consumers.

“As reviews on app stores and by professionals differ from those by people with lived experiences of mental health problems, these alone are not sufficient to provide people with mental health problems with the information they desire when choosing a mental health app,” they wrote. “App rating measures must include the perspectives of mental health service users to ensure ratings represent their priorities. Additional work should be done to incorporate the features most important to mental health service users into mental health apps.”

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