Torous, J., Lipschitz, J., Ng, M., & Firth, J. (2020). Dropout rates in clinical trials of smartphone apps for depressive symptoms: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 263, 413-419.
Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide, and yet more than 50% of people do not have access to adequate therapy. One solution might be to provide individuals with smartphone apps to help screen, monitor, or provide treatment. Smart phones are ubiquitous, and depression apps are one of the most downloaded categories of apps by the public. Research seems to suggest that smartphone apps provide some positive results for members of the public, but these findings are compromised by the high drop-out rates reported in the primary studies. Further, one study found that although many people download the apps, only about 4% actually use them. Whereas smartphone apps appear attractive to the consumer, very few actually make use of and therefore benefit from them. In this systematic review, Torous and colleagues conduct a meta-analysis of drop-out rates from studies that test the use of smart phone apps. They found 18 independent studies representing data from 3,336 participants who received a psychological intervention for depression via a cell phone app, or who were in a placebo control condition. A total of 22 different apps were tested in the studies. Initially, the pooled drop-out rate from the depression app treatment arms appeared to be about 26.2% (95% C.I.=11.34% to 46.75%), which would be in line with average drop-out rates from randomized controlled trials of face to face psychotherapy. But, the authors noted two things. First, the drop-out rate from the placebo control conditions (14.2%; 95% C.I. = 8.236 to 23.406) was almost half as high as that found for the apps. Second, through some sophisticated statistical analyses, they found evidence of “publication bias” in this research area. This means that a number of studies testing these apps likely were completed but never published (i.e., these might be studies funded by an app manufacturer that demonstrated negative findings or high drop-out rates). When the authors statistically adjusted for publication bias, they found that the actual drop-out rate from the apps was about 47.8%. That is, almost half of users did not complete or dropped out of the studies. There were no differences in drop-out between types of interventions (CBT, mindfulness, or others), and studies with larger sample sizes (i.e., better quality studies) had higher drop-out rates.
Although smartphone apps appear really attractive and may be potentially useful as an adjunct to face to face psychotherapy for depression, their utility is plagued by extremely low usage rates (4%) and high drop-out rates from studies (almost 50%). Leading writers and researchers define psychotherapy as primarily a healing relationship that also includes specific interventions. The key ingredient is the human relationship. Depressed or otherwise troubled individuals cannot (because of feeling demoralized) or will not interact with a machine for healing. One way or another, when it comes to smartphone apps, depressed individuals are voting with their feet. Given these findings, health care providers should consider the ethics of giving a depressed individual only e-therapy as the primary mode of treatment.