Report: Digital health tools maturing as research, funding grows 

As investors pour record amounts of funding into digital health companies, consumers and benefits managers have a growing number of apps to evaluate. A new report by the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science puts this into numbers.

The report’s authors identified 150 digital therapeutics and digital care products that are commercially available. The former includes software that can be prescribed like medication, such as Akili’s mobile game to improve attention in kids with ADHD, while the latter includes programs to help people manage clinical conditions, such as Omada’s digital diabetes prevention program. 

The idea of prescribing software is relatively new, and there are still lots of details to iron out, such as payment models and payer coverage. But the companies developing these tools are building out a growing body of evidence.

“We are finding evidence of a growing maturity of digital health tools in mainstream medicine,” Murray Aitken, executive director of the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science, said in a news release. “While there has been a significant growth in apps and digital health tools since 2013, we are beginning to detect improved quality of the digital health tools in the management of health conditions.”

So far, at least 25 digital therapeutics have been granted market authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, according to the report. Another 23 are commercially available, with some behavioral health apps exempted from FDA requirements for companies to submit a 510(k) premarket notification during the pandemic. The IQVIA report identified 89 digital therapeutics that are still in development.

The space for digital care products is much broader, with several examples of platforms being covered by health plans and insurers. Nearly 100 of these products have reached the commercial stage.

According to IQVIA, more than 2,000 studies have now been published evaluating the efficacy of digital health tools, the vast majority of which were published in the last five years. Even so, many organizations still rightly point out the need for more high-quality evidence, including more robust and longer-running clinical trials.

A closer look at health apps
Looking more broadly at health apps, people have a plethora of choices — though not all of them are great. More than 90,000 health apps were released last year, giving people a total of more than 350,000 to parse, according to the report. While about half of them were still focused on general activity and fitness monitoring, a growing number focused on helping people manage specific health conditions, such as mental health, diabetes, and heart conditions.

That’s not to say that all of these apps are worth using. Just 110 of them made up about half of all downloads.

The average quality of these apps was middling, according to IQVIA’s analysis, meaning that consumers should carefully evaluate which ones they download. These health apps don’t always take a privacy-centric approach. Numerous other studies have raised privacy concerns, from apps to track Covid-19 to period-tracking apps and even apps to support people with opioid use disorder.  

Focus on behavioral health
Another interesting takeaway from the report was the focus on mental health and neurological conditions across all categories, from health apps to digital therapeutics. About 22% of all apps to manage a specific health condition were focused on behavioral health, outpacing apps for diabetes and heart conditions.

Meanwhile, mental health and neurologic conditions made up more than two-thirds of all digital therapeutics, and more than 40% of all digital care programs.

Much has been said about the need for better mental health support during the pandemic, and this may have been a contributing factor. But it’s also worth noting that mental healthcare had been a big driver of virtual visits even before Covid-19. 

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