COVID-19 mobile health apps update

The Institute for Health Transformation's D-HEAL Team provides an update on the explosion of new COVID-19 mobile health apps.

Written by Associate Professor Martin Hensher

Since our last update, the D-HEAL (Deakin Health E-technologies Assessment Lab) team has been regularly scouring the mobile appstore marketplaces for apps purporting to assist consumers in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our first blog highlighted two Australian government backed apps – Coronavirus Australia and healthdirect’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptom Checker) – as being the highest rated according to our pilot D-HEAL Mobile Health Application Assessment Framework. 

We also reported in our second blog that the Australian Government’s COVIDSafe contact tracing app appeared overall to be a worthy effort, but that the Government would be well-advised to continue to rapidly increase transparency and clarify governance (such as how external audits will be undertaken and what criteria will constitute end-of-life for the app).

Latest overall COVID-19 app rankings for Australia
What’s been happening in the broader appstore marketplace has been extraordinary.

“Our D-HEAL team has noticed an explosion in the number of apps purporting to help consumers in the pandemic period,” says Professor Anna Peeters, Director of the Institute.

By 13 May 2020, the D-HEAL team, led by Deakin Health Economics’ Associate Professor Martin Hensher, had identified 135 apps focused directly on COVID-19. We screened these down to 16, by eliminating those not readily usable in Australia, not English language, or which will not function safely in Australia due to different supporting services (for example, calling 112 rather than 000 in emergencies). We then categorised the 16 remaining apps into a set of four categories (now expanded from the three categories identified in our last update):

1. Population health apps: these apps are intended to support COVID-19 pandemic management by the individual by providing up-to-date advice, announcements and some level of symptom checking, and risk evaluation (n= 7)

2. Data insight apps: the focus of these apps is  on providing real-time international and localised statistical outbreak information, with only limited health information and advice being provided  (n= 5)

3. Coaching/personal awareness apps: these apps provide coaching for users on how to deal with COVID-19 physically and mentally. These apps sometimes have a questionnaire/interactive testing tool for testing the acquisition of personal awareness knowledge about COVID (n= 3)

4. Contact tracing apps: (n=1)

 Based on the team’s evaluation as of 20 May 2020, Associate Professor Hensher says the D-HEAL team continues to recommend the Coronavirus Australia and healthdirect apps, together with the addition of MyAusCOVID-19 (from the Migration Council of Australia) and COVIDSafe, since they are the highest-scoring COVID-19 apps currently available in Australia. MyAusCOVID-19 is particularly welcome, as it makes more information accessible in a much wider range of languages spoken by Australian communities.

Professor Peeters notes that limitations still exist. “We still call out that the Coronavirus Australia, healthdirect and MyAusCOVID-19 apps do not work offline and this is a major impediment to remote communities. However, we’re pleased to note that they now support multi-lingual operation provided that Internet service is available.”

The team has still not found any apps in the Data insights or Coaching/personal awareness category that would be recommended at this time.

D-HEAL will continue to repeat the scan on a fortnightly basis and to report on emerging consumer oriented apps for COVID-19.

Tracing apps and COVIDSafe developments
In the three weeks since our last update, the COVIDSafe app’s source code (client side code only) has been released, together with the draft supportive legislation, and there has been heavy scrutiny by many individuals, research institutions and organisations. We’re pleased to note that some of the weaknesses of operation and governance that we highlighted have been addressed (at least according to what can be gleaned from public Government statements and exposure draft legislation). Some concerns we noted about performance are currently still under investigation. “The field of contact tracing is evolving fast and we intend to keep up in our reviews,” Deakin Health Economics researcher Dieu Nguyen says. 

In terms of rapid evolution, D-HEAL member Associate Professor Paul Cooper notes that Google and Apple have just released their jointly supported COVID tracing Application Programming Interface (API), a framework that supports a “decentralised” approach which locates contact-matching on devices themselves rather than a centrally controlled computer server (unlike the current UK and Australian centralised approaches). The use of the Apple/Google API would potentially overcome some performance limitations, in particular for some iPhone versions of COVIDSafe.  “However, we note that the UK has refused to use the Google/Apple API, and it remains to be seen whether Australia will do so,” he says.

The Australian Digital Transformation Agency is reportedly working with Google and Apple to evaluate the technology to see if it can be used effectively with COVIDSafe.   “The D-HEAL team is pleased that the Australian Government has not included location tracking into COVIDSafe, which would trigger strong privacy concern in Australia. This is a different situation to many other countries, which track location and/or make the use of the app compulsory, and we are pleased Australia did not take this approach,” Associate Professor Martin Hensher says.

There are now global projects tracking the growing field of tracing apps, and a team at MIT has rated COVIDSafe well except for the privacy and transparency concerns which we  called out in our last blog. 

Read more:
Medibank.com.au: Our top COVID-19 apps