The Use of Mobile Apps and SMS Messaging as Physical and Mental Health Interventions: Systematic Review

J Med Internet Res. 2017 Aug 24;19(8):e295. doi: 10.2196/jmir.7740.


Background: The initial introduction of the World Wide Web in 1990 brought around the biggest change in information acquisition. Due to the abundance of devices and ease of access they subsequently allow, the utility of mobile health (mHealth) has never been more endemic. A substantial amount of interactive and psychoeducational apps are readily available to download concerning a wide range of health issues. mHealth has the potential to reduce waiting times for appointments; eradicate the need to meet in person with a clinician, successively diminishing the workload of mental health professionals; be more cost effective to practices; and encourage self-care tactics. Previous research has given valid evidence with empirical studies proving the effectiveness of physical and mental health interventions using mobile apps. Alongside apps, there is evidence to show that receiving short message service (SMS) messages, which entail psychoeducation, medication reminders, and links to useful informative Web pages can also be advantageous to a patient's mental and physical well-being. Available mHealth apps and SMS services and their ever improving quality necessitates a systematic review in the area in reference to reduction of symptomology, adherence to intervention, and usability.

Objective: The aim of this review was to study the efficacy, usability, and feasibility of mobile apps and SMS messages as mHealth interventions for self-guided care.

Methods: A systematic literature search was carried out in JMIR, PubMed, PsychINFO, PsychARTICLES, Google Scholar, MEDLINE, and SAGE. The search spanned from January 2008 to January 2017. The primary outcome measures consisted of weight management, (pregnancy) smoking cessation, medication adherence, depression, anxiety and stress. Where possible, adherence, feasibility, and usability outcomes of the apps or SMS services were evaluated. Between-group and within-group effect sizes (Cohen d) for the mHealth intervention method group were determined.

Results: A total of 27 studies, inclusive of 4658 participants were reviewed. The papers included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) (n=19), within-group studies (n=7), and 1 within-group study with qualitative aspect. Studies show improvement in physical health and significant reductions of anxiety, stress, and depression. Within-group and between-group effect sizes ranged from 0.05-3.37 (immediately posttest), 0.05-3.25 (1-month follow-up), 0.08-3.08 (2-month follow-up), 0.00-3.10 (3-month follow-up), and 0.02-0.27 (6-month follow-up). Usability and feasibility of mHealth interventions, where reported, also gave promising, significant results.

Conclusions: The review shows the promising and emerging efficacy of using mobile apps and SMS text messaging as mHealth interventions.

Keywords: health; intervention study; mHealth; portable electronic applications; review; short message service; smartphone; systematic; treatment efficacy.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cell Phone / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mental Health / education*
  • Mobile Applications / statistics & numerical data*
  • Telemedicine / methods*
  • Text Messaging / statistics & numerical data*