ORCHA launches SAFE APPS campaign to help consumers choose safe digital health apps

A senior man looks at his mobile phone and checks his fitness goal for the day

Whilst NHS waiting lists are so long, and doctors are under so much pressure, we must all think differently about how we take care of our health.

That’s the view of two thirds of respondents in a new poll*. Sixty-eight per cent were willing to look at new ways to self-manage their health, including using health apps. Only 8% disagreed with the use of health apps to help the NHS.

But ORCHA (the Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Apps) warns that whilst there are some topflight health apps available, the market is so flooded, and the quality so variable, that there needs to be more guidance on choosing good apps.

Liz Ashall-Payne, founding CEO of ORCHA, said:

“Great health apps are, right now, being prescribed by doctors to help their patients sleep better, manage their mental health, keep fitter, monitor medicine usage and much more. But all of us need better advice on how to choose a good quality app. Consistently, more than half of the health apps we review fail to reach the standard required to be used by the NHS.”

Why we are launching the SAFE APPS campaign

Everyone knows not to open an email attachment sent by a stranger. But we are far less cautious when downloading health apps – and the consequences could be as bad or worse.

ORCHA commissions an annual check of consumer attitudes towards the use of health apps. This year’s research has revealed that thousands of people are unwittingly downloading untested health apps to assist with complex conditions such as epilepsy and diabetes.

Zero per cent (yes, 0%) of respondents surveyed by One Poll in March 2023* who had used a health app had checked whether it was backed by a clinical team with professional credentials.

“That’s the equivalent of buying a random box of pills with no MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) approval and swallowing a handful of them, hoping for the best,”

said ORCHA’s research director Dr Simon Leigh.

Instead, 30% of those app users had checked consumer reviews on app stores, feeling this gave them adequate protection.

Dr Leigh said:

“We’ve proven through academic studies that good consumer reviews are not a safe indicator of the quality of the app.** In fact, as a rule, the higher starred the consumer reviews, the less compliant the apps are in terms of the required standards and accreditations. Consumers are putting far too much faith in anecdotal observations by others.”

How to select a safe health app – think S-A-F-E

ORCHA recommends that consumers carefully consider which health apps they choose – these guidelines should help.

SECURE – How secure is this app and does it have a clear privacy policy? Do not tick any box without reading the text and understanding what this means. Better quality apps will let you tick and untick permissions so you can change your mind later. Be aware that you may be giving this app permission to share your sensitive data with third parties.

ASK – Have you asked a healthcare professional about your app choices? Doctors and nurses will be able to recommend a variety of top-quality apps, allowing you to make a good choice.

FIND – Where did you find this app? Was it on an NHS or charity approved app library? Was it on your organisation’s app library? With 300,000 health apps now on app stores, where there is only light oversight, it is harder to find a quality product.

EVIDENCE – Does your app demonstrate clear evidence that it was developed by someone with medical expertise? More complex apps, such as those which help monitor or diagnose conditions, will be subject to medical device regulations and should be backed by clinical trials or observational studies.


What to avoid when choosing a health app

ORCHA warns that when choosing apps, consumers should not just look for high download numbers and consumer starred reviews on app stores. These are not always indicators of quality.

For example: One diabetes app which is currently available on app stores, and which has 500,000 plusdownloads, includes a Bolus calculator, used to calculate insulin dosage. According to the Evidence Standards Framework (a benchmarking system checking health app quality, used by NICE), this app requires a randomised clinical trial to check its effectiveness and an observational trial to check it is safe for patients to use. However, the ORCHA team found no evidence of either, above a user testimonial. ORCHA scored this app very poorly (36%) for professional assurance (65% is pass rate).

Liz Ashall-Payne said that health apps had the power to revolutionise the delivery of health services but the market needed to be regulated.

“We know from our in-house research that nearly six million GP attendances and 600,000 A&E admissions could be prevented annually if digital tools were deployed which encouraged patients to manage their health at home.

“And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are tremendous cost and efficiency savings to be made right across the NHS.

“There are some fantastic digital tools now available, but all the products we use must be scrutinised in exactly the same way as medicines.”


* The independent research by One Poll questioned 2000 consumers in March 2023.

*Effective? Engaging? Secure? Applying the ORCHA-24 framework to evaluate apps for chronic insomnia disorder | BMJ Mental Health