Editor’s note: this article was updated to address changes requested by an interviewee.

From anxiety and pain self-management to side effect monitoring in clinical trials, mobile applications are revolutionizing oncology. Researchers say the technology is even transforming clinical trials themselves.

“The integration of wearable health monitors with smartphones offers capabilities to collect continuous, accurate health data in real time,” the authors of a 2016 analysis reported. “This emerging digital research platform has the potential to increase data accuracy and timeliness, improve operational efficiencies, and achieve greater patient engagement in the clinical trial process.”1

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A variety of challenges, however —from data security and patient privacy issues to device usability and regulatory obstacles — pose major hurdles.

“When implementing apps in clinical research, one of the highest barriers to overcome is the legal limitations,” the authors of a perspective article published in March wrote. “This means, besides the usual trial information, patients have to be educated about the app technology, secure data transfer (anonymous or pseudonymous), data storage, time of storage, and the possibility to delete data if they discontinue the study.”2

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Still, they concluded that app-accompanied randomized controlled trials (smartRCTs) and app-based studies “are the future of medical research — radiation oncology in particular. While there are certain barriers — especially the data privacy laws — the advantages outweigh the limitations…apps can reduce trial costs, study duration, and subjectivity bias as well as collect a wider range of data. One thing is clear: smartRCT is not a question of whether or not, but of when and how.”

Apps are defined under the World Health Organization’s label of “mHealth” or “eHealth” as “medical and public health practice supported by mobile devices, such as mobile phones, patient monitoring devices, personal digital assistants, and other wireless devices.”3

Together, Google and Apple carried about 79,000 apps in the health and fitness category in 2016, according to the study, which serves as evidence of widespread acceptance of the use of smartphones for both gathering health information and for providing health-related feedback.

While the consumer-based health and fitness apps have the greatest distribution, both companies have gone further.