Methodological Challenges in Randomized Controlled Trials on Smartphone-Based Treatment in Psychiatry: Systematic Review

Morten Lindbjerg Tønning*, Lars Vedel Kessing, Jakob Eivind Bardram, Maria Faurholt-Jepsen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReviewpeer-review

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Smartphone-based technology is developing at high speed, and many apps offer potential new ways of monitoring and treating a range of psychiatric disorders and symptoms. However, the effects of most available apps have not been scientifically investigated. Within medicine, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are the standard method for providing the evidence of effects. However, their rigidity and long time frame may contrast with the field of information technology research. Therefore, a systematic review of methodological challenges in designing and conducting RCTs within mobile health is needed. This systematic review aimed to (1) identify and describe RCTs investigating the effect of smartphone-based treatment in adult patients with a psychiatric diagnosis, (2) discuss methodological challenges in designing and conducting individual trials, and (3) suggest recommendations for future trials.
A systematic search in English was conducted in PubMed, PsycINFO, and EMBASE up to August 12, 2019. The search terms were (1) psychiatric disorders in broad term and for specific disorders AND (2) smartphone or app AND (3) RCT. The Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials electronic health guidelines were used as a template for data extraction. The focus was on trial design, method, and reporting. Only trials having sufficient information on diagnosis and acceptable diagnostic procedures, having a smartphone as a central part of treatment, and using an RCT design were included.
A total of 27 trials comprising 3312 patients within a range of psychiatric diagnoses were included. Among them, 2 trials were concerning drug or alcohol abuse, 3 psychosis, 10 affective disorders, 9 anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder, 1 eating disorder, and 1 attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In addition, 1 trial used a cross-diagnostic design, 7 trials included patients with a clinical diagnosis that was subsequently assessed and validated by the researchers, and 11 trials had a sample size above 100. Generally, large between-trial heterogeneity and multiple approaches to patient recruitment, diagnostic procedures, trial design, comparator, outcome measures, and analyses were identified. Only 5 trials published a trial protocol. Furthermore, 1 trial provided information regarding technological updates, and only 18 trials reported on the conflicts of interest. No trial addressed the ethical aspects of using smartphones in treatment.
This first systematic review of the methodological challenges in designing and conducting RCTs investigating smartphone-based treatment in psychiatric patients suggests an increasing number of trials but with a lower quality compared with classic medical RCTs. Heterogeneity and methodological issues in individual trials limit the evidence. Methodological recommendations are presented.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere15362
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number10
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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