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Are apps for cancer survivors legitimate?

Researchers recently assessed the number and types of apps for cancer survivors available to describe what types are available.

In this age of technology and the ever-present cell-phone, many inventive designers have created apps for cancer survivors. In 2017, there were approximately 318,000 health apps, and around 200 health apps are added every day.

Researchers from the UK working at the Institute of Applied Health Sciences, University of Aberdeen, performed a scoping review to find all the apps for those recovering from cancer that were available on Google Play and Apple’s App Store. A scoping review determines the number of apps for cancer survivors and puts them into groups.

To map the apps for cancer survivors, the lead researchers checked the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store for the terms “cancer”, “cancer survivor”, and “cancer survivorship”. The study did not include apps that were not in English, apps for awareness such as mole checking for skin cancer, or apps that were targeted towards diets or recipes. If the app was not specifically for cancer patients or survivors, it was not included.

Since the Apple App Store constantly loads results, researchers limited the number of results to the first 500 results displayed. The results could not be exported, so the study lead reviewed the results, and selected those that were applicable based on the apps’ description. Then a second study member reviewed the descriptions and confirmed whether they were eligible.

The research team then analyzed the apps to determine the source of the app (non-profit organization, charity, academic, or commercial), the type of cancer addressed, country of origin, cost, number of downloads (only available on Google Play), rating, and whether there was information on the scientific basis of the app. The app descriptions were also analyzed for content and theme. Based on this, apps were classified into categories developed by the research team. If an app did not fit into one of these categories, they were excluded from the study.

Content and focus of apps for cancer survivors

Twelve hundred sixty-five apps were reviewed and one hundred fifty-one were included in the review. Most of the apps for cancer survivors (58.9%) were not for one specific type of cancer but covered all types of cancer. Breast cancer apps made up 14.6% of the total. The primary themes of the apps were fighting for life, navigating a journey, and being empowered to take control.

The content of the apps fell into five main groups: information about cancer, managing cancer care, how to adjust to life with or after cancer, feedback for cancer management, and managing personal relationships.

One-third of apps developed based on science

About one third (33.8%) of the apps were developed with input from scientific or clinical research. Some of the apps were considered potentially exploitative by the researchers, who developed a simple checklist to review when reviewing apps. The Four D’s checklist asks: Does something useful – would the app help you? Design – does the app look easy to use? Developer – was the app made by a credible organization? Data – what data does it collect and why?

The researchers would like to study the potential benefit of these types of apps for cancer survivors for clinical study use. The study determined there are many apps for cancer survivors available that could be beneficial.


Written by Rebecca K. Blankenship, B.Sc.


Reference: Adam R, McMichael D, Powell D, et al. Publicly available apps for cancer survivors: a scoping review, BMJ Open 2019;9:e032510. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-032510

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Rebecca Blankenship BSc
Rebecca Blankenship BSc
Rebecca Blankenship is a freelance technical writer. She reviews, edits, and authors internal quality documentation required for regulatory compliance. She has twenty years experience in industrial pharma/medical device quality management systems and an honors BSc in chemistry. She is a natural born rule follower and enjoys applying this strength to help others be audit ready to meet regulatory requirements. She also loves learning about the latest scientific discoveries while writing for Medical News Bulletin. Her free time is spent as a full-time mom, encouraging can-do attitudes and cooperation in her three children.


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