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Hacking Medicine Institute’s New App Review Program Helps Patients, Providers Cut Through The Noise

The Hacking Medicine Institute today announced RANKED Health, a program to critically evaluate and rank health-focused applications and connected devices.

Healthcare focused mobile applications make lots of promises. They promise help physicians monitor patients with real-time data, resulting in better outcomes and lower costs. They promise to provide treatment to patients in low resource settings with limited access to healthcare professionals. They promise to help you track your sleep, steps and symptoms, and take your medicine on time.

In the past five years, the market of healthcare apps has exploded—there are currently 150,000 healthcare apps on the Apple app store that capture data, encourage behavior change, and provide support. But this moment of rapid innovation in digital healthcare is not without its problems. Whereas traditional healthcare solutions are typically backed up by clinical evidence to prove they are both effective and safe, many healthcare focused mobile applications are not subject to the same types of clinical scrutiny. What’s more, some of them administer advice that is patently contrary to clinical guidelines. Take for example, the mental healthcare app that suggested bipolar patients consume liquor to treat sleeplessness.

In this rapidly growing marketplace of digital health products, patients and physicians alike are unsure how to cut through all the noise and find apps that are safe, effective, and that handle personal information securely. The sheer number of available apps makes recommending them to patients an overwhelming challenge, and physicians don’t know where to start.

The Hacking Medicine Institute, a nonprofit spun out of MIT’s Hacking Medicine, is tackling the challenge of assessing the efficacy and safety of digital health products with their new program, RANKED Health. “There isn’t a trusted, credible source that you can go to if you’re a physician or a patient to figure out which of these 150,000 apps are worth using,” says RANKED Health co-leader Dr. Maulik Majmudar, who is a cardiologist and associate director of the Healthcare Transformation Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. The program plans to rate healthcare focused mobile applications and connected devices with the aim of identifying both the “best-in-class” apps and those that are potentially dangerous to consumers.

Dr. Maulik Majmudar

Dr. Maulik Majmudar

For the past 9 months, Dr. Majmudar and his team have been working to develop a rigorous methodology for rating the apps. They settled on an adapted academic journal model, where two experts review the app independently and a third editor synthesizes the information from the two reviews. Reviewers will put a heavy emphasis on clinical relevance and utility of the product, but will also consider other factors such as functionality, usability, and a cursory review of security. Currently the reviewers are volunteer clinicians, but Majmudar hopes that as the program grows, the patients will serve as third reviewers in the process.

Currently the Institute is considering apps in two categories: chronic diseases that are common in the US, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and apps that are generally popular such those that track symptoms, reproductive health and medication adherence. Apps are narrowed down by series of subjective and objective processes—in each area apps are selected from the list of top 200 downloads and are then researched extensively before entering the review process.

In addition to rigorous review processes, the program places a heavy emphasis on transparency. “We are going to be very transparent, not just in our approach and methodology, but also in terms of conflict,” says Majmudar. The bio of every reviewer accompanies each review, and specifically mentions potential conflicts of interest including equity, research, advisory/consultancy roles and employment.

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