The UOC project aims to develop a tool to identify the best apps that help fight depression

The latest PAHO (Pan American Health Organization) report put the prevalence of depression in Spain at 5.2%, and there is every indication that mental health disorders will increase significantly as a result of the COVID pandemic. -19.

In this scenario, the use of mobile apps could aid in both the prevention and treatment of these disorders, working in tandem with other treatments. But how do you really know which applications work and are scientifically validated? A team led by eHealth Center member Carme Carrion, head of the eHealth Lab research group at UOC, has launched a project to develop a tool and methodology to help patients and professionals identify the best applications to manage the Depression. The objective of the EvalDepApps project is to design an instrument for evaluating the applications used in this field, in order to differentiate those that can be useful and provide added value.

We want to help professionals and users separate the wheat from the chaff and identify the applications that can help better manage the health problem on a daily basis, while providing more data in real time and under conditions that allow professionals to follow more closely the evolution and process of each person affected by depression.”

Carme Carrion, Research Director, UOC Faculty of Health Sciences

The project team is made up of 16 researchers from 8 different institutions. In addition to Carme Carrion (project coordinator), the other UOC participants are Antoni Pérez-Navarro (member of the Faculty of Informatics, Multimedia and Telecommunications and researcher of the ICSO group) and researchers from the Noemí Robles eHealth Center and Francesc Saigí (member of the Faculty of Health Sciences of the UOC and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Digital Health). The project will also include the participation of patients and professionals from other research and care institutions in Catalonia, the Valencian Community, Andalusia and the Canary Islands.

The risks of mental health apps

It is currently estimated that there are around 10,000 mental health applications of which, according to preliminary data from the researchers, 250 are dedicated to the treatment, monitoring and support of people suffering from depression. “Applications considered medical devices must currently follow specific European regulations, but most of them are not classified as such, and are often accessible in IOS and Android repositories and downloadable by everyone”, explains Carme Carrion.

Any app can pose security and data protection risks, but mental health apps can pose an additional risk if the information they provide is inadequate. “These apps are often not aimed at specific individuals and are too general to be useful to most people who use them. There are only a few that are based on solid scientific evidence, so there are a risk that they suggest actions or therapies without any validity, or even those that cause effects contrary to what is required”, underlined the researcher.

In this context, the health system needs reliable, safe and efficient tools to evaluate these applications. “In this way, professionals will have more information to prescribe applications without risk for the patient and with maximum guarantees on their potential effectiveness; and patients will also be able to identify which applications have the best rating and can be found in the usual references”, says Carme Carrion.

Analysis of applications and evaluation criteria

The project will conduct a review of current apps to treat, monitor and support people with depression. It will also examine the strategies currently used to evaluate these applications, since there is no official regulation, nor consensus on the criteria to be evaluated to consider a health application as sufficiently safe and effective. “There are different initiatives to evaluate mobile health solutions, but this evaluation is often only partial. Thus, the validation and evaluation of health applications does not yet have an agreed, thorough and complete methodology for their risks, benefits, costs, social impact and organizational impact, or ethical and legal aspects”, explains the researcher.

To carry out this task, the researchers relied on the experience gained during a previous project carried out by the same EvalApps team, which created an app rating system that helps manage overweight and obesity. obesity. In this project, common criteria have been identified to evaluate all types of applications, regardless of their purpose: data security and confidentiality, user-friendliness, reliability, level of development and functionality.

EvalDepApps will take these metrics and – with input from patients, app experts, and mental health and primary care professionals – it will define the appropriate criteria in terms of the effectiveness and safety of actions to manage depression. “There are generally valid tools to evaluate any type of health application, but we must find the criteria to validate their effectiveness and safety in the different types of health problems they treat. In the field of mental health, there are also recommendations, for example from the American Psychiatric Association, but they have to be adapted to our context,” she explained.

Co-creation workshops to design the app

Subsequently, various co-creation workshops will be organized, inspired by the methodology of design thinking, to design the application evaluation tool; it will be a question of defining the most appropriate instrument (application, website, multi-platform system, etc.) as well as the requirements or characteristics it must have in order to be useful and easy to use. For this process, the participation of patients and experts from different disciplines is very important. “For some time now, developers and healthcare professionals have worked closely together. However, to ensure that people use an application on an ongoing basis, you must add the end user’s vision. This is essential” , underlines the researcher.

Once developed, the tool will be tested with a group of volunteers, including users and healthcare professionals. The final tool will be delivered to the various health services of the Autonomous Communities concerned and made freely available to the general public in an open access format.


University of Oberta de Catalunya

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