Developing a Health App

Health and medical apps have experienced a boom in popularity within the last few years. According to a recent study, the proportion of adults in the U.S. who use health and fitness apps on their smartphones has risen 16% from 2013-2015. Last year, an article in Forbes predicted smartphone users would “trust health apps more than their doctors” by 2016. This rise in popularity is in part attributed to the “ehealth” movement, wherein technological tools provide health services and information at your fingertips

This recent surge of interest in mobile health apps could have great implications for the Center of Sexuality and Health Disparities’ newest research project:  , or the Mobile Messaging Intervention to Present New HIV Prevention Options for Men Who Have Sex with Men. This ongoing study aims to design a smartphone app that will help users prevent HIV transmission, as well as help those living with HIV to manage their care. M3 is a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) with two phases. The first phase will be mobile application (app) development, where men attending M3 focus groups in Detroit, Atlanta and New York City will help inform the content and delivery of HIV prevention information on the app. The second phase will ask a new group of men to use the app and give their insights on whether they like it and how it impacts their overall health.

In a 2014 study, The Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities researchers Tamar Goldenberg and Rob Stephenson, along with their colleagues from Emory University and the University of Washington, conducted focus group discussions with 38 gay and bisexual men to better understand what MSM want out of an HIV prevention app. Participants felt the app had to be: safe (private), trustworthy, fun, and professional. As you can imagine, it might be difficult to develop an app that meets these criteria.

It could be especially challenging to make HIV messaging fun, especially as it relates to health prevention messages surrounding an often-misunderstood topic. Additionally, meeting these criteria can be challenging when compounded with the ever-present health communication messages that uses a tone of fear. Decades of research on effective health communication methods have demonstrated that fear-based messaging makes audiences feel off-put and defensive.

Prevention messages need to encourage a sense of self-efficacy and empowerment. If our app is to be successful and useful, our prevention messages have to be sex-positive, engaging and enjoyable. This may be a tall order, but we can do it with the help of gay and bisexual men not only in the Detroit community, but New York City, and Atlanta as well. The University of Michigan Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities will be holding focus group discussions and in-depth interviews with roughly 30 GBMSM in Detroit this Fall. We hope to receive some valuable feedback on the delivery and content of future M3 messages. We’re actively recruiting study participants now. If you are interested in seeing if you are eligible or may know of others that are interested, click on the eligibility screener link.  You can also go to The Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities under the “Projects” section to find out more.

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