Making sense of COVID-19 health apps

Which COVID-19 mobile health apps can currently be recommended for Australian consumers?

Written by Associate Professor Martin Hensher

Over the last two months, the world has seen an unprecedented push to provide support for people affected by, or exposed to, COVID-19.  One of the ways in which Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation is assisting in these efforts is by identifying COVID-19 mobile health applications (or ‘health apps‘) that currently offer value to the broader community in Australia. 

Director of the Institute, Professor Anna Peeters explains: “Our D-HEAL (Deakin Health E-technologies Assessment Lab) was already working on a preliminary Mobile Health Applications Assessment Framework, supported by the Medibank Better Health Foundation. We felt we could quickly refocus that work into an emergency usage for COVID, since there are many COVID-related applications that have recently become available on Android and Apple mobile platforms. We wanted to find a way to help people by assessing those apps which are helpful, functional, ethical and safe.  To do this, we concentrated initially on apps accessible through Apple App Store and Google Play Store within the Australian market.” 

The team of researchers, led by Deakin Health EconomicsAssociate Professor Martin Hensher, first asked the question, “What COVID-oriented applications are currently visible in the Australian marketplace?”  In a scan conducted by the team during the period from 24 March to 23 April, a total of 116 applications using the key terms ’COVID‘ or ’coronavirus‘ were found. 

The team then used the preliminary Deakin University Mobile Health Application Assessment Framework to filter and review all the identified apps based on their intended purpose, availability and accessibility in Australia, language, target audience, developer and collaborator. A requirement for inclusion was that apps should be explicitly labelled as being intended for, or retargeted substantially towards COVID-19 support.

Team member Research Fellow Associate Professor Paul Cooper explains further. “The identified apps were then assessed to eliminate those that were not English language or that required high levels of medical or clinical input or oversight (i.e. those that were developed primarily for clinical use), since our interest was primarily on those designed for consumer use.  The remaining 13 consumer-oriented apps were then assessed against six key domains including functionality; user experience, adherence and engagement; interoperability; technology requirements; information validity; ethics, data privacy, legal and legislation. 

“We used information provided in the descriptions of the apps and in their online support or marketing material.  The team found there are three main types of COVID apps currently available in the market, including management apps, tracking apps and coaching/education apps.” 

The team’s assessment found the two top-rated apps currently available in Australia are both management apps: Coronavirus Australia and healthdirect’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptom Checker. Both are oriented primarily around information provision and symptom checking – and both are supported by the Australian Government. 

A key criteria was that information provided via the app should be medically sound and research-validated, which was the case with both these apps. Both apps have good levels of functionality, good usability features, and adhere to current ethics and privacy guideline good practices.

A/Prof Hensher notes that the healthdirect app goes a bit further than the simple provision of news and information updates. 

“While both apps are good at providing trustworthy information, the healthdirect app allows the user’s phone to identify nearby health services, including those that support bulk billing and telehealth consultations which might be helpful,” he says. 

The researchers caution that both apps currently have limitations: they are both unable to function well when the mobile device is offline or in a dead-spot. “This will currently limit the usability of the apps in remote and regional communities,” A/Prof Cooper says.

The team intends to repeat the scan on a fortnightly basis and to report on emerging consumer oriented apps for COVID, and will use the process to refine the assessment framework. It expects the functionality of emerging apps will increasingly go further than simple information provision, and it will assess and report on the evolution of features and functions as they emerge.

The next round of evaluations is anticipated to include a number of emerging COVID-19 tracker apps, not least the Australian Government’s just released tracking and tracing app, COVIDSafe

“We will be interested to see how quickly, and in which areas, apps created by non-government providers start to emerge, how well-customised they are for use by Australian consumers, and – of course – how many Australians are taking them up,” A/Prof Hensher says.

The research team at D-HEAL comprises:

Professor Anna Peeters, Director, Institute for Health Transformation

A/Prof, Martin Hensher, Associate Professor of Health Systems Financing and Organisation

A/Prof Paul Cooper, Senior Research Fellow

Dieu Nguyen – Research Assistant, Deakin Health Economics

Sithara Wanni Arachchige Dona – Associate Research Fellow, Deakin Health Economics

Mary Rose Angeles – Research Assistant, Deakin Health Economics

Useful links:

Coronavirus Australia app: https://www.health.gov.au/resources/apps-and-tools/coronavirus-australia-app

healthdirect Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptom Checker: https://www.health.gov.au/resources/apps-and-tools/healthdirect-coronavirus-covid-19-symptom-checker