Background:Researchers have traditionally used evaluation research methodologies to determine effectiveness of public health communications campaigns and programs – specifically, process data. Outcomes research methodologies using more quantitative data in general and biometric data in particular has had a limited role. With the introduction of digital technologies, however, the capture of real-time quantitative biometric data can greatly support and supplement established research methodologies. Mobile apps are already playing a prominent role in changing health behaviors and improving public health, whether it’s providing a better understanding of diseases, improving fitness, or providing personal health monitoring services and reminders or cues to action. The literature has shown that results are mixed for defining behavioral change from app usage. Many apps do little to apply behavioral change theory, and some that are more effective employ social capabilities or gamification. But considerably more research is needed, and it’s possible that quantitative app data may provide an important contribution.
Program background:The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute (NHLBI) at the National Institutes of Health recently rebuilt its BMI calculator app for Apple and Android devices. The calculator app helps users monitor their BMI and provides access to helpful NHLBI resources. From this app, the NHLBI has been able to collect several months of anonymized analytics data such as date of use, screens viewed, and similar data. These data can be analyzed and integrated with more generalized app analytics to provide a rich data set that can supplement qualitative data. One important advantage of collecting app user data is determining how often users use the app, which can triangulate similar data from qualitative surveys and calibrate the results.
Evaluation Methods and Results:NHLBI BMI app data evaluation methodologies will be demonstrated, and utilization data will be displayed, including:
- How anonymized user data can reveal usage patterns.
- How quantitative data can triangulate with qualitative data.
- How the app ecosystem is an ideal platform to assess short-term behavioral change.
Conclusions:New public health apps will provide many new opportunities to assess how users consume health information and content. The NHLBI BMI app illustrates the utility and potential of apps to provide important contributions to understanding the contributions of data gathering personal tools and their dynamics of behavioral changes in public health.
Implications for research and/or practice:Research into the NHLBI BMI app, along with other current research into public health apps, can provide a basis for optimizing future app development efforts to evaluate behavioral change and help consumers improve their health. Best practices for evaluation that ensure complete user privacy and provide better understanding of consumer health tracking needs can play a valuable role in the future of public health app development.