For many years there has been a common refrain for mobile health app discovery: There's no Consumer Reports for health apps. With tens of thousands of health-related smartphone apps, dozens of direct-to-consumer wearable health sensors now available, and various other websites and services -- how is the increasingly health-conscious consumer to choose? Or, perhaps, if you believe that digital health tools are a new product category: How do consumers even hear about all these digital health tools in the first place? The discoverability problem is a big one, but there are many new and existing players doing something about it.
First off, while Consumer Reports has yet to truly step up and come up with a definitive and ongoing assessment of which digital health tools are best for consumers to adopt, it might do so in the future. In 2009 a Consumer Reports analyst compiled a fledgling list of health and medical apps that the writer says shows the diversity of health apps available at the time. Not a true "recommended" list, but -- at the time, anyway -- it certainly seemed like a start.
Earlier this year Consumer Reports provided some press for popular diet and fitness app MyFitnessPal. Consumer Reports asked 9,000 of its magazine subscribers about which diet plans they prefer, including commercial diet plans and do-it-yourself ones. The usual suspects came out on top for the commercial diet plan category (Weight Watchers, Medifast, Jenny Craig), but MyFitnessPal won the do-it-yourself diet plan category, besting diet plans like the Paleo Diet and the Mediterranean Diet.
The survey led NBC's The Today Show's blog to declare MyFitnessPal a top app according to Consumer Reports. That's a coveted designation many health app developers have been wanting for years -- even if it wasn't as official an assessment as other have previously hoped.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) writes on its HealthIT.gov site: "Whether you’re looking to maintain or improve your health, a large number of web sites, apps, and devices exist to help you track and manage your health and wellness. On your own, you can use such resources to better understand your health and meet your personal health goals. But you may also be able to use the information you collect to help your doctor better understand your concerns and conditions." As HHS notes, the list "contains just a fraction" of digital health tools available currently, and the government is quick to point out that it doesn't endorse any of the tools listed.
Apple has stepped up its curation of the iTunes AppStore over the course of the past year with new sections, including one on top iPhone fitness apps to "get moving", which now includes top running, swimming, and cycling apps for the first time. AppStore users no longer are on their own wading through the tens of thousands of health apps if they don't want to be.
There are many great review sites, like Greatist, a StartUp Health company, that often provide consumers with suggestions for digital health tools. Sites like Greatist could turn out to be the next generation Consumer Reports.
Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar stores like Apple, Best Buy, Walgreens and others are increasingly stocking health and fitness gadgets. While in-person retail sales are proving difficult for some businesses, these impromptu encounters with a relatively new product category like digital health might be crucial for adoption in these early days.
Health economist and Health Populi blogger Jane Sarasohn-Kahn noted over the weekend that digital health companies were marketing their wares to mothers -- and those buying gifts for mothers -- for Mother's Day. Newspaper magazine insert Parade included a piece on Mother's Day gift ideas that featured Fitbit's "smart pedometers" as one suggestion. Men's Health Magazine prodded sons and husbands to consider a Garmin Forerunner watch. Entertainment Weekly pointed to the Jawbone UP.
Sarasohn-Kahn concluded (and I agree): "From Parade magazine to Amazon, digital health is mainstreaming."
Maybe Consumer Reports will join the fray someday. Maybe not. Despite that, the marketing and curation of consumer-facing digital health tools is now well underway.