Though 58% of survey respondents had downloaded a health app on their smartphone, 46% have downloaded apps that they no longer use.
The study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, suggests there is an opportunity for these apps to improve health of patients - particularly in underserviced groups - but more research needs to be conducted on how to boost their effectiveness.
According to the researchers - led by New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center epidemiologist Dustin Duncan - this study is the most in-depth investigation to date regarding health app use in the US.
"Smartphone applications have tremendous potential to help market healthy lifestyle habits to people who may be harder to reach in other ways," says Duncan, "especially minorities, and those with lower incomes and serious health problems."
To investigate how common downloaded health apps are, as well as their use, the researchers conducted a survey that involved participants from all over the US, who answered 36 questions online regarding app use, health status and personal information.
All participants spoke English, owned a smartphone and were over the age of 18 - though the average age of respondents was 40. Additionally, the majority had annual incomes of less than $50,000.
'Challenges to keeping users engaged'
In total, there were 1,604 smartphone users involved in the survey, 58% of whom had downloaded one of the 40,000 health apps that are currently available. Also, 42% of respondents had downloaded five or more apps.
Of those who used the apps, 65% said they had improved their health, and more than half expressed a belief in the health apps' effectiveness and accuracy.
However, results also showed that 46% of respondents downloaded an app that they no longer used. Furthermore, barriers to more effective use of the apps included concerns over cost, disinterest over time and privacy.
Interestingly, the most downloaded and used health apps had to do with personal fitness and nutrition. In detail, 53% tracked physical activity, 48% tracked food consumption, 47% monitored weight loss and 34% gave exercise instructions.
Additionally, of the respondents who downloaded apps, 65% reported using their apps on a daily basis. Those most likely to use the apps were primarily younger, more educated, had a higher income, were of Hispanic ethnicity or obese.
Regarding cost, 41% said they would never pay anything for health apps, while 20% would pay up to $1.99 and 23% said they would pay between $2 and $5.99.
Commenting on their results, study author Paul Krebs, PhD, says:
"Our study suggests that while many Americans have embraced health apps along with their smartphones, there are challenges to keeping users engaged, and many Americans who might benefit are not using them at all."
He adds that developers of apps need to address user concerns over privacy, purchasing costs and reducing the burden of data entry.
The self-reported nature of the survey is a limitation, as is the one-time "snapshot" of use - rather than following study subjects over longer periods of time.
"There is still much more to be learned about how we can broaden the appeal and make best use of the wide variety of health apps now available," says Krebs, "not just for fitness and nutrition, but for other purposes, such as monitoring sleep and scheduling medical appointments."
Medical News Today previously investigated whether health apps do more harm than good.