By Chunyan Li
The success of HIV medications has changed HIV from a fatal disease to a chronic illness. However, like other chronic diseases that require lifetime medication (at least for now), maintaining good adherence to antiretroviral therapy is not easy for HIV-positive people for reasons such as the complex drug regimens, strict requirements on the time of daily medication, and sometimes intolerable side effects. Having a mobile phone-based application to remind patients of daily medication is a good way out, but the effectiveness of such medication adherence apps remains less studied.
One significant challenge that such apps often face is a lack of behavioral science in design. Some experts described the development of many healthcare apps as a “black box”, blaming that app developers often focus too much on technology while neglecting behavior change theories or research evidence. One 2016 research study  reviewed all health apps on Google Play, Apple App Store and Windows Phone Store, and found that the reviewed 28 eligible health apps only used 5.6 out of the total 37 behavioral change principles on average. Among the four categories of behavior change principles proposed by the researchers (task support, dialogue support, system credibility and social support), the most used principles were about “system credibility” and “task support”, including features like surface credibility, expertise, authority, and providing general information and function of self-monitoring. The two categories “dialogue support” and “social support”, which require higher user-provider interactivity and more constructive design based on behavioral science, are somehow neglected.
In another systematic review  that reviewed all eHealth-based HIV intervention studies (including smartphone-, Web- and general Internet-based interventions), 10 out of the 14 studies that had a component of adherence improvement were smartphone-based. As HIV patients are usually required to take medicines on quite a strict daily schedule, and sometimes even to be in private if HIV/AIDS is heavily stigmatized, smartphone-based apps are better for portability and privacy protection. However, it could also be challenged when people feel unsafe to disclose HIV status or worry about leaving digital footprints on such apps. In lower-income settings where cell phones are shared with family members, using apps to keep track of medication adherence might not be an ideal option for HIV-positive people.
In a qualitative research study about the HIV treatment continuum that I’m recently working on, a frequently-mentioned desired feature of app-based interventions by HIV-positive people is having communication with human counselors. Many adherence apps may have functions of knowledge education, tracking medications and pushing reminders, but lack an emotional support. Living with HIV is a chronic and multidimensional (physical, psychological and cultural) stress, and a successful coping with such a stress requires consistent support from families, friends and health professionals. Though the advantages of health apps include its mass-reach to users and increasing access to care in limited-resource settings, we should never ignore the needs for human caring and support. How to incorporate human support into HIV medication adherence apps could be one of the future research directions.
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