Evidence and experience suggest that mental health-focused mobile apps hold the potential to overcome barriers to treatment in primary care. While safe and effective apps exist, evaluating and integrating them into practice from the marketplace is a challenging endeavor.

For a paper published in Current Treatment Options in Psychiatry, we and our colleagues conducted a systematic review across mental health areas. Our work revealed that existing apps can aid primary care clinicians in assessment, providing education, and treatment of mental health conditions. Symptom-tracking and education about disorders are strengths of existing apps, and some apps designed to treat PTSD, smoking, and alcohol are supported by research.

Yet, significant limitations and risks associated with some existing apps mean the potential to harm patients must be seriously considered when implementing apps. For instance, in areas such as eating disorders, apps not only lack evaluation, but may contain a significant subset that provide potentially harmful advice. Throughout the whole market, very few apps currently protect user privacy and data security sufficiently. Thus, physicians must be responsible for co-evaluating apps with patients and providing information about the potential risks and benefits of use.

Existing frameworks can help guide healthcare professionals and patients through selecting and implementing apps. The American Psychiatric Association’s App Evaluation Model proposes five stages of evaluation for consideration before integrating a mental health app into treatment:

  1. Gathering background information
  2. Assessing privacy and security
  3. Examining evidence for potential benefits
  4. Evaluating ease of use
  5. Examining interoperability, or how app data can be shared for treatment

The nonprofit site PsyberGuide.org rates apps on credibility, user experience, and transparency to help patients and clinicians find trustworthy and effective apps. Careful evaluation of mental health-focused apps according to professional frameworks can enhance the likelihood of safe, effective use.