Occupational therapist Peyman Azad Khaneghah started his PhD at the University of Alberta determined to create a mobile app to help patients spot signs of depression and other mental illnesses.
With more than 300,000 health apps already on the market, he soon realized that what people might need more is help sorting through this often confusing array of offerings.
So Dr. Azad Khaneghah created an app rating system, which he’s now refining and putting online as part of a research project funded by AGE-WELL, Canada’s technology and aging network. The project also receives non-monetary support from the Organization for Bipolar Affective Disorders.
It’s all about giving app users, family caregivers and healthcare providers the tools to ask the right questions when they’re looking for an app, he says.
“It’s not a game. It’s an app that you’re going to use to get health benefits,” explains Dr. Azad Khaneghah, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo. “So we need to be cautious about the decisions we make.”
It’s easy to focus on the “superficial” features, such as an app’s appearance, while overlooking potentially serious drawbacks. Many apps have privacy and security flaws, make unsubstantiated health claims or may be produced by untrustworthy developers, he says. Other mobile apps may cost a lot, while offering minimal or untested benefits.
“Most of these apps haven’t been backed with clinical data or research,” he points out. “They say they can reduce depression or control anxiety, but where’s the proof? That’s where most of these apps are failing.”
The project isn’t focused solely on app users. Dr. Azad Khaneghah also hopes the rating system will encourage developers to do a better job of validating their claims.
The system – dubbed the Alberta Rating Index for Apps (or ARIA) – is a two-step process that guides people as to what to look for, both before downloading an app and while using it.
Dr. Azad Khaneghah believes the system is more important than ever because of COVID-19 and the toll it can take on mental health.
With help from the University of Waterloo’s Games Institute, he’s working to add video tutorials and interactive animation guides to the web site.
“It’s rooted in my training as an occupational therapist,” says Dr. Azad Khaneghah, who works as an OT in Edmonton. An AGE-WELL highly qualified personnel (trainee), he has a special interest in mobile health apps for older adults.
The goal is to get the web-based rating system online in early 2021, creating a crowd-sourced repository of mobile health apps where users can see summaries of available ratings.
Dr. Azad Khaneghah is already thinking of next steps for the rating system, such as using artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate the testing and evaluation of apps. He says that will require more research, which he looks forward to doing with his supervisor and project lead Dr. Lili Liu of the University of Waterloo.
“It is a very ambitious plan,” he acknowledges. “But that is the long-term vision I have.”
Photo courtesy of AGE-WELL.