Does an app a day keep the doctor away?

Assoc Prof Josip Car’s research highlights the need for responsible design of suicide prevention apps. Credit: NTU.

With an estimated 800,000 suicides globally each year, suicide remains one of the leading causes of preventable deaths around the world.

Mobile apps may help those at risk of depression and suicide, and there are currently many of such apps for digital devices available.

In their study, Assoc Prof Josip Car and his team at NTU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine appraised the trustworthiness of depression management and suicide prevention apps, as well as their adherence to six evidence-based clinical guideline recommendations—mood and suicidal thought tracking, safety plan development, recommendation of activities to deter suicidal thoughts, information and education, access to support networks, and access to emergency counselling.

Out of 69 depression and suicide prevention apps assessed, only five offered all six strategies. Some apps, including those that had been downloaded more than a million times, even provided inaccurate suicide crisis helpline phone numbers.

“With the high rates of smartphone use around the world, health apps can be a crucial addition in the way users manage their health and wellbeing on a global scale,” says Assoc Prof Car, who is Director of NTU’s Centre for Population Health Sciences.

“However, for this to become a reality, health app development and release should follow transparent, evidence-based models and guidelines,” he adds.

The study “Suicide prevention and depression apps’ suicide risk assessment and management: a systematic assessment of adherence to clinical guidelines” was published in BMC Medicine (2019), DOI: 10.1186/s12916-019-1461-z.

The article appeared first in NTU’s research & innovation magazine Pushing Frontiers (issue #17, August 2020).

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