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Key findings

  • Health apps are mostly being used for fun or gamification to help set goals and motivate users.

  • Four in ten (42%) of consumers are using health apps despite many holding concerns around the accuracy of the apps.   

  • Users of health apps aren’t thinking about how health app data is being used. But consumers do have clear data sharing red lines - particularly with non-health organisations.

Health apps and wearables are continuously growing with over 50,000 health apps currently available for consumers. The majority of the population have used a health app or wearable at some time,  with 4 in 10 (42%) being current users. There are a range of health apps available for consumers with fitness/exercise apps (used by 26% of people) and calorie counting apps (used by 25% of people) being the most commonly downloaded. 

Which? research aimed to understand how consumers are engaging with this relatively new technology and start to delve into any concerns around the sensitivity of this data and potential consumer harm.  This article focuses on findings regarding consumer attitudes to sharing data collected.

Health apps are being predominantly used for goal setting and tracking of health and wellbeing

Health apps are becoming a large part of consumers' lives. Two thirds of users (66%) use them to get 24-hour, real time read on their wellbeing, and 40% use them to keep motivated to progress towards their goals. Whilst health apps aren’t for medical use, many have used them in the pandemic to monitor and record specific aspects of their health and wellbeing (Ipsos, 2021). In our recent  research 16% of users report using health apps for medical purposes such as diagnosing an illness or disease.

Users are not entirely sure about the accuracy of health app data and wearables.

Consumer opinions on the accuracy of the data collected by health apps/wearables varies depending on the type of app. For example, consumers are more likely to see fitness/exercising apps (65%) as accurate than mental health apps (27%). There is also a relationship between familiarity with health apps and perceptions of accuracy. Current users are more likely to feel apps are accurate - and more needs to be done to explore whether this is because they are focusing on the benefits of the technology. Having said this, there is still a fair bit of scepticism among users.

If the data collected through apps and wearables isn’t as accurate as users expect, this  could  lead to consumers overestimating their wellbeing or cause unnecessary anxiety about their health.

Consumers have red lines when it comes to how their health app data is used

While health app data isn’t of medical quality it is still incredibly rich and can be used by a range of organisations to profile and infer health status. Data is flowing to third parties from apps (BMJ, 2021), but consumers aren’t always aware of this. 

When asked, both users and non-users expressed clear red lines when it comes to how this data is shared. Consumers tend to feel more comfortable with data being shared with medical/health organisations such as medical professionals (80% users, 62% non-users). By contrast, consumers tend to be uneasy about sharing health app data with non-health organisations - for example 80% of people felt uncomfortable sharing health data with advertising companies.

The discomfort around data sharing expressed by consumers in this survey indicates potential harm - as consumer data could be shared without them being consciously aware or understanding of how it is being used, impacting their privacy.This risk could be addressed  by providing clear information to consumers in accessible language about what data is collected and who it is shared with, and by giving consumers easy-to-use tools that let them control their data.

Conclusions

Despite mixed perceptions of accuracy of apps and concerns around data sharing, consumers remain enthusiastic about health  apps and wearables. Consumers will continue to use health apps because they get value out of them, but without easy access to the right information and tools to control their data they will continue to rationally disengage with issues around data. Due to this and the sensitivities of the data collected - particularly by mental wellbeing apps - there is a need for further exploration.

Contact us

If you have any questions or would like to find out more, please email Paige Johns at consumerinsight@which.co.uk 

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