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Back pain apps offer ‘poor quality information’

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Smartphone apps for helping people to manage low back pain have questionable value as they are generally of poor quality, according to an Australian study.

University of Sydney researchers reviewed 61 current apps designed to help users self-manage their back pain and evaluated their content, functionality, quality, and whether they recommend evidence-based interventions. The apps were all available in the Australian iTunes and Google Play stores.

They found that, although the recommendations in most apps were broadly in line with the 2016 National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) treatment guidelines such as strengthening exercises and yoga, the quality of the information provided was generally low.

“Treatment guidelines often recommend self-management for the symptoms of back pain, and mobile apps can represent a useful and convenient way to help people manage their own condition, however, consumers need to be aware that there is minimal regulatory control over their content,” commented lead researcher Gustavo Machado from the university’s School of Public Health.

“Millions of people worldwide use these apps, however here is no independent guidance to help consumers identify which ones are safe and of high quality.

“In this study, apps generally offered questionable and poor quality information, lacked engaging and customisable features, and had poor visual appeal and questionable credibility.”

Machado highlighted developer claims that users could rapidly improve their back pain symptoms by following their exercise programmes.

“However, none of the apps have been directly tested for their effectiveness, and only very few provide the educational content and information that is key to guideline recommendations,” he said.

“Considering none of the apps included in this study had been evaluated rigorously, it is not clear whether any of them are really effective in improving symptoms in people with back pain.”

Senior author of the study Steven Kamper, associate professor at Sydney Medical School, said that app developers need to work closely with healthcare professionals, researchers and patients to ensure their content is accurate, evidence-based and engaging.

The findings of the study have been published in Best Practice & Research: Clinical Rheumatology.