Comparing Smartphone Apps for Traditional Chinese Medicine and Modern Medicine in China: Systematic Search and Content Analysis

JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2021 Mar 24;9(3):e27406. doi: 10.2196/27406.


BACKGROUND: Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is an integral part of mainstream medicine in China, with theories and practices that are completely different from modern medicine. TCM should not be ignored or confused with modern medicine in the analysis of the Chinese health care system, including the analysis of mobile health (mHealth) apps. To date, differences between TCM apps and modern medicine apps have not be systematically investigated.

OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study was to systematically compare the quality of apps for TCM and modern medicine in China.

METHODS: In December 2020, we searched iOS (iTunes) and Android (Tencent, Oppo, and Huawei app stores) platforms for all mHealth apps and then categorized them as TCM or modern medicine apps if they were included in the final analysis. The included apps were downloaded on smartphones and assessed by 2 reviewers on the following 4 aspects: (1) data in the app stores, including user ratings, download counts, cost, target users, and year of last update; (2) functionality; (3) quality of the app content as determined by the Mobile App Rating Scale (MARS); and (4) analysis of the app privacy and security.

RESULTS: In total, 658 apps were analyzed, including 261 TCM medicine apps and 397 modern medicine apps. The average download count of modern medicine apps (approximately 5 million) was more than 10 times that of TCM apps (approximately 400,000). Regarding functionalities, 64.7% (257/397) of modern medicine apps provided telemedicine (74/261, 28.4% in TCM apps), 62.7% (249/397) provided registration (70/261, 26.8% in TCM apps), and 45.6% (181/397) provided communication (38/261, 14.6% in TCM apps). A larger proportion of TCM apps provided prescription and medication management (144/261, 55.2% in TCM apps versus 168/397, 42.3% in modern medicine apps). The majority of modern medicine apps (329/397, 82.9%) combined ≥3 functionalities compared with one-third of TCM apps (93/261, 34.6%). We then selected 81 top apps for quality and safety assessment (41 TCM apps and 40 modern medicine apps). Of these, the mean overall MARS score of TCM apps (2.7, SD 0.5) was significantly lower than modern medicine apps (3.6, SD 0.4). Almost all modern medicine apps (38/40, 95%) addressed privacy and security by providing a privacy policy and describing how to protect personal data, but less than half of the TCM apps (18/41, 44%) described this information (P<.001).

CONCLUSIONS: The different functionalities reflect the distinct innate characteristics of these two medical systems. Although great progress has been made and the Chinese mHealth market size is large, there still exist many opportunities for future development, especially for TCM.

PMID:33759786 | DOI:10.2196/27406