How to build better health apps

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In today’s connected world, digital products must engage, excite and entertain to hold our attention. There’s an app for everything: requesting a rideshare, shopping for groceries, and even monitoring your home. We cannot deny that this technology inspires us to continue innovating. It takes the friction out of our daily lives and makes connection more efficient and convenient. However, the dark side is that some of these apps are created to keep us addicted.

In recent years, we have seen a saturation of apps focused on wellness and mental health because there is a need for the accessibility they provide. However, many of these tools are created in a hurry and without considering the possible consequences on users’ lives. The underlying goal is to get the consumer to stay on the app as long as possible by conditioning users to trust the app to make them feel better, obsessed with likes, number of followers and updated news.

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

The perfect storm: Mixing comfort and self-diagnosis

At the start of the pandemic, there was significant investment in telemedicine startups as the government gave up office visits to obtain prescriptions for controlled substances to help with diagnoses like ADHD, and telehealth apps took advantage of this opportunity tremendously. Within months, consumers became convinced that a 30-second video could diagnose them with ADHD or give them access to services that would prescribe medication for it.

As the telehealth boom reached its peak, it also prompted more people to express their experiences with neurodiversity on social media platforms. While social media can be a space to build community and support, it has also made neurodiversity something of a fad. On TikTok, which has become the go-to resource for younger audiences to find information about neurodiversity, the hashtag “ADHD” alone has over 14 billion views, many of which come from viral misinformation videos. and stereotypes. Despite good intentions, conversations on these apps can actually 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 recklessly prescribing ADHD medications with little oversight, their impact is deep and lasting. They have positively identified a pain point and unmet needs around assessments and access, which is why they are talked about so much on these platforms. Although we need the speed that telehealth applications have begun to provide, offering access cannot and should not be addictive when it comes to people’s health.

Health Apps: Putting People Over Profit

Apps can be harmful when they are used to optimize solely for profit under the guise of providing access. Companies should proceed with caution when creating products that do not serve the best interests of the community, and the creators of these applications should take a moment to assess how to marry accessibility and speed with credibility and the inherent desire to help companies. people.

Anything that tends to favor the quick fix or response instead of being more responsible with the life of the individual is dangerous. It could send people down the wrong path, make them feel worse, or lead them to mishandle real problems.

Before scaling digital solutions, companies must participate in clinical trials to ensure that their products are evidence-based and do not have long-term consequences. They must also constantly collect user feedback so they can stay ahead of course corrections that may be needed. In medicine, “do no harm” is a fundamental principle for many physicians, and the number one goal of health technology companies should always be to better serve the patient and do what is best for the individual, not the bottom line.

Consumer Due Diligence

While the onus is on technology companies to do better, there are also actions consumers can take.

Consumers need to assess what exactly they are looking to accomplish by using these services or apps that support their learning and thinking differences. Things to look for include a strong vetting process where healthcare professionals are thoroughly vetted and a high 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. What solutions and options are being presented? Are there forums and experts available, or is prescription medication the only option?

It is also helpful for consumers to reflect on their own use of the app and be aware of how it makes them feel. If they feel more anxious or addicted after repeated use of the app, it might be time to take a break. Focus on getting the help they need, and then hang up the phone and interact with the outside world instead.

Telehealth companies, social media, and other behavioral health apps are going nowhere. If anything, we will see a continued push towards innovation in medicine and technology through similar products in the future. While these advances prompt us to move 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 center of what we do. They are trusting us with their health. It’s up to us to help them, not hurt them.

Jenny Wu is co-president and chief product officer of Understood.org.

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