Background: Some latest estimates show that approximately 95% of Americans own a smartphone with numerous functions such as SMS text messaging, the ability to take high-resolution pictures, and mobile software apps. Mobile health apps focusing on vaccination and immunization have proliferated in the digital health information technology market. Mobile health apps have the potential to positively affect vaccination coverage. However, their general functionality, user and disease coverage, and exchange of information have not been comprehensively studied or evaluated computationally.
Objective: The primary aim of this study is to develop a computational method to explore the descriptive, usability, information exchange, and privacy features of vaccination apps, which can inform vaccination app design. Furthermore, we sought to identify potential limitations and drawbacks in the apps’ design, readability, and information exchange abilities.
Methods: A comprehensive codebook was developed to conduct a content analysis on vaccination apps’ descriptive, usability, information exchange, and privacy features. The search and selection process for vaccination-related apps was conducted from March to May 2019. We identified a total of 211 apps across both platforms, with iOS and Android representing 62.1% (131/211) and 37.9% (80/211) of the apps, respectively. Of the 211 apps, 119 (56.4%) were included in the final study analysis, with 42 features evaluated according to the developed codebook. The apps selected were a mix of apps used in the United States and internationally. Principal component analysis was used to reduce the dimensionality of the data. Furthermore, cluster analysis was used with unsupervised machine learning to determine patterns within the data to group the apps based on preselected features.
Results: The results indicated that readability and information exchange were highly correlated features based on principal component analysis. Of the 119 apps, 53 (44.5%) were iOS apps, 55 (46.2%) were for the Android operating system, and 11 (9.2%) could be found on both platforms. Cluster 1 of the k-means analysis contained 22.7% (27/119) of the apps; these were shown to have the highest percentage of features represented among the selected features.
Conclusions: We conclude that our computational method was able to identify important features of vaccination apps correlating with end user experience and categorize those apps through cluster analysis. Collaborating with clinical health providers and public health officials during design and development can improve the overall functionality of the apps.
IT has revolutionized all aspects of the world, including our health care system. IT has enhanced the overall efficiency and accessibility of patient care . Smartphones are a type of IT that has become important within health care [ ]. Some of the latest estimates show that approximately 95% of Americans own a smartphone with numerous functio0ns such as texting, the ability to take high-resolution pictures, and mobile software apps [ ]. Owners of smartphones also use the available functions to manage various facets of their health [ ]. Today, mobile health (mHealth) technology plays a crucial role in providing quality health care services by improving health outcomes and facilitating health care access. Istepanian et al [ ] defined mHealth as mobile computing, medical sensor, and communication technologies designed for health care. The use of mHealth apps provides an efficient way for patients to share their medical information with providers, improves the collection of real-time health information, and supports vaccine uptake [ ].
A significant concern that is often communicated by mHealth app users is data privacy. In the United States, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) ensures that health care entities provide adequate measures to protect patient data. Many consumer-based apps that track and monitor health data are not HIPAA compliant. Health care stakeholders in the United States recommend that mobile apps designed for health care be HIPAA compliant [, ]. Another impediment faced by mHealth apps in the current dynamic immunization practice is a 1-sided vaccine delivery system or lack of bidirectional information exchange. There exists the opportunity to leverage mHealth apps as tools to support public navigation of complex health systems and promote bidirectional communication of information between the public and health providers. Factors such as lack of health care access, fragmented vaccine provider systems, and low vaccine literacy can lead to undervaccination in the community [ ]. Moreover, vaccine hesitancy can further reduce vaccine uptake among populations and undermine previous gains in eradicating communicable diseases [ ].
Vaccine hesitancy—the delay or refusal to be vaccinated despite available vaccination services—is a complex phenomenon that involves emotional, cultural, social, spiritual, and political factors [, ]. When considering vaccine hesitancy and decision-making, parental vaccine hesitancy stems from a variety of reasons, and there is no one-size-fits-all type of parent who chooses to forgo vaccinating their child [ , , ]. Suspected autism side effects, religious reasons, concerns over the “newness” of the vaccine, and inaccurate portrayal of vaccines in various media outlets are common factors that influence parental vaccine hesitancy [ , ]. The recent resurgence of outbreaks of whooping cough and measles in children is a prime example of vaccination refusal associated with the resurgence of preventable communicable diseases in communities [ ]. Although vaccination mHealth apps are attempting to address this issue, current results are mixed [ ].
Rationale and Aim
Results from a recent systematic review reported a lack of evidence supporting the use of vaccination apps geared toward children, as shown through vaccination uptake, knowledge, and decision-making . Another systematic review reported that mHealth improved vaccination uptake among adults and children; however, there is inconclusive evidence that digital solutions will achieve optimal vaccination coverage [ ]. Barriers such as technology hesitancy, complicated app navigation, and difficult app features can compromise vaccination app use. Security and storage compliance associated with HIPAA, along with transmission and protection of private health data collected through vaccination apps, is another pressing concern.
The primary aim of our study was to develop a computational method to explore the descriptive, usability, information exchange, and privacy features of various vaccination apps, which can inform vaccination app design. We also aimed to assess these apps using a content analysis approach and identify potential flaws in app functionality. This study analyzed these data according to their respective operating platforms and collectively. The content analysis approach used was adapted from previous studies [, ].
Definition and Identification of Vaccination-Related Apps
For this study, vaccination-related apps were operationalized as apps that allowed tracking, scheduling, and general dissemination of vaccination information [, ]. Apps were included if they were found on the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store. The query terms “vaccination,” “immunization,” “vaccine,” “immunization schedule,” and “vaccination schedule” were used in the search process to generate our sample of apps. English-language apps and English-language apps with a second language were both included. We did not search any cell phone manufacturer app stores (eg, Samsung Galaxy Store) as Google Play and the Apple App Store are prominent web-based marketplaces used by Android and iOS smartphone users to download apps. Apps characterized as sideload apps and homebrew apps were excluded. Sideload apps are apps that have not been certified to be included within an app store. We characterized homebrew apps as apps that can be downloaded using a computer terminal.
The search and selection process for the apps was conducted from March to May 2019. We identified a total of 211 apps across both platforms, with iOS and Android representing 62.1% (131/211) and 37.9% (80/211) of the apps, respectively. As iOS apps represented more than half of the apps collected, we chose a random sample of apps from each platform to generate a sample of 132 apps (62.6% of the total sample). We oversampled the Android apps that were collected to provide a balance of Android apps that would be represented in the feature space. Moreover, oversampling is a common technique used when there is an underrepresentation of 1 class [, ]. In addition, prior work has documented health apps that were discontinued within a 12-month time frame [ ]. Our final list of apps included those that remained on the market for at least 12 months (as of May 2020). Using the criteria of meeting the 12-month time frame, content written in English, and the operationalized definition of vaccination-related apps as part of the 2 lead researchers’ additional deliberation of the apps, the final number of apps included in the study was 119. To accurately classify the apps together and individually, they were categorized according to their status of iOS, Android, or both. Although we could have included apps designated as both in one platform, it would have been an inaccurate representation of the apps [ , ]. To evaluate and understand the nuances of vaccination apps’ descriptive, usability, information exchange capability, and privacy features, we used a mixed methods approach to frame our work. First, we developed and evaluated a codebook and conducted a content analysis of the included apps based on the codebook. This provided us with a general insight into the categories of the codebook. Second, we conducted dimensionality reduction on the features constructed from the codebook and content analysis results. Third, we wanted to identify those features that were more important for explaining variances in the data. Finally, through k-means clustering, we clustered the apps according to the feature dimension reduction results from step 3. The following sections provide additional details for each step.
To comprehensively characterize the features of the vaccination apps retrieved, we systematically developed an inclusive codebook with 4 categories (). These 4 main categories were developed during the app screening process. These broad categories have been used in similar vaccination app–related studies [ ]. A total of 10 apps were randomly selected in June 2020 to evaluate the codebook, and the results were cross-validated to ensure a moderate level of agreement between the 2 coders using percentage agreement [ ]. We achieved 90% agreement regarding the selected apps. Following the establishment of a stable version of the codebook, immunization apps were evaluated according to the major categories ( ). The 42 features across the 4 categories in were used to represent the feature space for our computational analysis, as detailed in the following sections.
|Descriptive||App name, developer; platform (iOS, Android, or both), category in the app store (medical, health and fitness, travel, or local), size in MB, ranking in its respective category if applicable, overall star rating if applicable, age rating if applicable, and cost (completely free, free to download with in-app purchase, or paid)||These descriptive characteristics gave an overview of the immunization app and such information could generally be found on the app store’s description page without the need to download or install the app .|
|Users and diseases||Target users and target diseases; for target users, we analyzed whether the app provided information on a specific user group (eg, children, parents, women, physicians, and age group); target diseases pertained to the description of a specific disease or general information concerning vaccinations and scheduling||In this category, we evaluated the targeted users and diseases of the apps. Some apps could be used by multiple, potentially overlapping groups of adult users, such as travelers and women, for which we created a specific group with binary response only. The targeted users included the following: minors, parents, travelers, women, people of all ages, and health care providers and staff. For targeted diseases, 0 was associated with no user-defined diseases, and 1 was for specific diseases such as seasonal influenza and measles-mumps-rubella .|
|Information exchange features||Account requirement for full app functionality, information presented about specific types of vaccines, educational information about vaccination and immunization in general, immunization tracking, customization of schedule, identification of nearby vaccination clinics, reminders of upcoming vaccination events, and personalized vaccination recommendations||In this category, we further explored and quantified vaccination-related core features of the apps.|
|Privacy and readability||Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act–compliance feature; presence of in-app privacy statement; presence of privacy statement in the app store; presence of multilingual (at least 2 languages) privacy statement; and the average length of the privacy content (in English) using the following 7 readability measures: Simple Measure of Gobbledygook, Flesch Reading Ease score, Gunning Fog Index, Flesch-Kincaid Grade, Coleman-Liau Index, Automated Readability Index, and Linsear Write Formula ||Here, we considered an important element in mobile health–related research and app development, which is privacy-related features to address privacy concerns around sensitive and private vaccine health information. These features would provide information on how user-generated data would be collected, stored, shared, and transmitted on the web and offline [, ].|
We analyzed and evaluated the content of the apps using the aforementioned codebook through a combination of content analysis , descriptive statistics, and unsupervised machine learning. First, we used principal component analysis (PCA) to reduce the feature space from our original data set. Second, the apps were clustered using the k-means algorithm in R (R Foundation for Statistical Computing). The following sections will discuss in detail how PCA and k-means clustering were used in this study.
PCA is an important preprocessing step. Prior studies have used PCA to show children’s interactions with education apps  and reduce the context dimensions of data from smartphone apps [ ]. After coding the 119 apps based on the 42 features, we conducted PCA to reduce the dimensionality space of our data. We used the prcomp function in R to explain the variance that was represented by the different principal components (PCs).
After identifying the proportion of variance, we determined the value of each feature contained within each PC. We used the loading values of each PC to determine this information. These values represent the correlations between the PC and the original used features. A correlation that is close to 1 or −1 indicates how important the feature is to the component. We extracted the top 5 features for each PC with the highest variance. Using these values, we reduced the number of features to represent the apps from 42 to 10. The key idea of PCA is to reduce the number of variables in the data set but preserve as much information or representation of that information in the new data set as possible . Although there is no gold standard for determining the number of features to retain from this process [ ], the retained features represented important components of many apps. The retained features were used to describe the data and conduct our k-means cluster analysis.
K-Means Cluster Analysis
Cluster analysis is used to define classes within a set of data. Clustering can be conducted using supervised and unsupervised methods. We used the unsupervised k-means clustering method to group our apps. This clustering algorithm is well documented, with successfully separating data for analysis; moreover, it has performed similar to or better than other clustering approaches [, ]. This method uncovers latent patterns within the data and allows us to have a better understanding of which apps are associated with each other based on the selected features. To determine the number of clusters, we used the total within-cluster sum of squares (or elbow method) [ ] and the silhouette method. The total within-cluster sum of squares measures how compact the clusters are. The silhouette method [ ] seeks to measure the quality of the clustering. We examined how well the feature object lies within the clustering [ ]. We analyzed both methods to determine the optimal number of topics to use for our k-means clustering analysis.
The data used in this study satisfied two research activities that did not require IRB approval, Quality Assurance and Improvement. IRB approval is not required if the study involves the practice of program evaluation, self-assessment of programs or business practices, and other quality improvement projects where methods rather than humans are the subject of the study. It also satisfies the conditions of a pilot study where the activities are intended to refine data collection procedures – time to participate, testing survey questions, etc. where any data collected are only used to plan and/or improve a future research study.
Overview of Categories and Features
Of the 42 features, 12 (28%) were used for the descriptive app category. Of these 12 features, 9 (75%) were used for the (targeted) users and diseases category, and 8 (67%) were used for the information exchange category. Finally, 31% (13/42) of features represented the privacy and readability category. Of the 119 apps, 53 (44.5%) were iOS apps, 55 (46.2%) were for the Android operating system, and 11 (9.2%) could be found on both platforms. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade readability score (readability tests designed to indicate how difficult the content is to understand) had an average of 6.4 (SD 6.6) for both platforms combined () [ ]. Privacy statements on iOS had an average length of 850.38 (SD 1483.42) words, whereas the privacy statements of apps on Android had an average length of 790.42 (SD 1227.05) words. The user star rating was higher for the Android apps than for the iOS apps. There was a considerable difference in the sizes of apps, with iOS apps using more space (37.54 MB) than apps supported by Android (11.48 MB).
|App features||iOS (n=53)||Android (n=55)||Both (n=11)||Total|
|Number of ratings, mean (SD)||13.53 (62.34)||1772.8 (8136.84)||61.91 (79.07)||831.11 (5600.44)|
|Size in MB, mean (SD)||37.54 (41.2)||11.48 (17)||14.4 (19.47)||23.36 (32.66)|
|Star rating, mean (SD)||0.83 (1.59)||2.63 (2.08)||2.71 (2.07)||1.84 (2.06)|
|Age rating, mean (SD)||9.34 (5.4)||2.62 (4.99)||—a||5.37 (6.15)|
|Flesch-Kincaid Grade, mean (SD)||6.13 (6.89)||6.01 (6.38)||9.63 (6.28)||6.4 (6.6)|
|HIPAAc compliance, n (%)|
|Yes||7 (13)||2 (4)||0 (0)||9 (8)|
|No||46 (87)||53 (96)||13 (100)||110 (92)|
cHIPAA: Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
Results from the dimensionality reduction of the feature space showed that PC1 explained approximately 24.7% of the data and PC2 explained 8.3% of the data (). The next step in our PCA involved reviewing the correlations between the PCs and the features [ ]. Using the loading scores, we analyzed the values for PC1 and PC2. A review of the features for PC1 showed that the Automated Readability Index, Simple Measure of Gobbledygook, and Flesch-Kincaid Grade were the top 3 correlated features for PC1 ( ). Reminders of vaccinations, customized scheduling, and vaccination tracking were the most correlated features for PC2 based on the loading values ( ). Results from PC1 showed a high correlation between readability-related features, whereas results from PC2 showed a high correlation between customization-related features. PC2 highlights the importance of a consumer-focused approach to managing immunization schedules for children [ ].
Top 5 features correlated to their respective principal component (PC).
Top 5 features
- PC1 (features related to readability)
- Automated Readability Index
- Simple Measure of Gobbledygook formula
- Flesch-Kincaid Grade
- Reading text page success
- Linsear Write Formula
- PC2 (features related to user customization)
- Reminder for vaccination
- Customized schedule
- Vaccination tracking
- Personalized recommendations
- Targeted at parents
K-Means Cluster Analysis Results
|Features||App cluster, n (%)|
|1 (n=27)||2 (n=32)||3 (n=29)||4 (n=19)||5 (n=12)|
|Android||12 (44)||15 (47)||13 (45)||9 (47)||6 (50)|
|iOS||11 (41)||13 (41)||14 (48)||9 (47)||6 (50)|
|Both||4 (15)||4 (12)||2 (7)||1 (6)||0 (0)|
|Yes||16 (59)||4 (12)||8 (28)||6 (32)||5 (42)|
|No||11 (41)||28 (88)||21 (72)||13 (68)||7 (58)|
|Yes||25 (93)||4 (12)||0 (0)||18 (95)||10 (83)|
|No||2 (7)||28 (88)||29 (100)||1 (5)||2 (17)|
|Yes||27 (100)||32 (100)||0 (0)||0 (0)||0 (0)|
|No||0 (0)||0 (0)||29 (100)||19 (100)||12 (100)|
App Development and Feature Analysis
mHealth technology has the potential to improve the efficiency and convenience of health care information exchange. Our findings can be categorized into two major themes: (1) features that limit the functionality of apps and (2) features that impede the overall user experience. Although most apps are moderately received by their users, based on the app rating feature, there were salient weaknesses identified through the use of PCA. This further suggests that the limitations within the reviewed vaccination apps must be addressed. On the basis of the k-means cluster analysis and the selected features, only 1 cluster of vaccination apps did not provide evidence for user vaccine schedule customization. Functionality improvements to mHealth apps could allow for a connection between patients and medical professionals to provide timely care. Systematic incorporation of information exchange features and improving policy readability would result in notable enhancements to future apps, as well as those that are currently on the market and fail to incorporate these features.
We concluded that most vaccination apps were not developed alongside health professionals. There is no standard for expert involvement in app development for any sector, and integrating medical experts in the development of mHealth apps is important, considering the increased use of mHealth technology in health care spaces . Specifically related to vaccination apps, they serve as a potential tool for vaccine advocacy, administration, documentation, and monitoring success within vaccination programs. Previous research has shown a lack of engagement from public health agencies, who might have benefited from a better estimation of immunization coverage and preparedness for incoming epidemics [ ]. The apps we studied were absent of any data-sharing features with public health departments, although vaccine tracking is important when monitoring vaccine programs.
Health Literacy and Health Communication
Privacy and Security
Transferring vaccination records from paper to digital requires strict data standards and interoperability to ensure security . Interoperability describes the extent to which systems can exchange and interpret shared data based on standards across health care settings. Interoperability allows for the secure exchange of medical information, which is essential for successful technological advances in health care. Less than half of the apps analyzed contained features that allowed data to be shared for personal recommendations. “Some information exchange methods involve ‘rolling out’ the electronic health records (EHRs) to unaffiliated health care organizations, creating an interface between different EHRs, or sharing a portal that allows others to view their information” [ ]. Opportunities exist to develop evidence-based apps with regard to health data security and privacy concerns [ ]. Credibility is a major concern of mHealth apps and may influence consumer use. This could lead to creating a systematic approach to mHealth vaccination app development and how these apps securely connect patient information with EHR systems [ ].
Strengths and Limitations
The validity of our research is upheld through a diligent acquisition and analysis of the 119 Android and iOS apps. We used 2 computational approaches to reduce the feature space and cluster our apps. Furthermore, PCA allows for the identification of specific features correlated to the larger PCs. Following the use of PCA and k-means clustering, our data provide a visual representation that is palatable for diverse audiences. The method used in our work has implications for other domain areas to examine the most important features when considering app design.
Despite a rigorous procurement and analysis of the 119 apps, our research contains several limitations. First, the apps that did not meet the 12-month time frame of representation on their respective platforms were removed from the analysis . Although analyzing these apps independently was not the primary focus of this study, if included in our study, they could have affected the outcome of specific features, particularly the apps on the Android operating system. Future work should systematically evaluate apps that were discontinued during the study and compare their impact on study results. We did not observe the same issue with iOS apps. This yields potential complications for the replicability of our research in accordance with the obtained data. As a result of selecting apps exclusively from the Android and iOS app stores, there is potential for vaccination-related apps in other marketplaces to be excluded, affecting the study results. Another limitation involves bias related to the data selection process. Oversampling the Android apps creates an imbalance in the feature representation that may already be inherent to the data.
Second, this study was started in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccination hesitancy along with misinformation has exacerbated vaccination uptake concerns. The landscape related to vaccination campaigns and the use of vaccination apps has changed significantly since this study started. Therefore, changes in apps that address misinformation, vaccine hesitancy, and telehealth services should be considered in future studies. Third, we used 2 exploratory machine learning approaches that can be affected by the data set size, number of features, and number of clusters. Instead of k-means clustering, the use of a hierarchical clustering method can account for grouping concerns during the cluster assignment step. Future work may incorporate other computational techniques to analyze these nuanced differences.
Finally, the researchers conducting this study are a US-based team; therefore, this research is intended to facilitate future app development. This research is also intended to supplement the further improvement of vaccination apps currently used in the United States. Not all the 119 apps featured in our research are based in the United States; this adds to the limitations of the research as it may complicate health recommendations that adhere to government and regional guidelines. Per the variation in countries where the apps are based, HIPAA compliance may not apply to other nations, and this may additionally complicate comparisons. Despite some apps being based in other countries, many internationally focused apps have followed or referenced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for vaccination schedules.
The use of vaccines as a tool in personal and public health remains a cornerstone of disease prevention. Despite the advancement of vaccine technology and the promotion of vaccines as safe and effective, vaccine hesitancy has led to the resurgence of preventable childhood diseases. This resurgence threatens the effectiveness of vaccines as a public health tool. Technology, particularly mHealth apps, enables the intersection of public health and IT to potentially manifest positive vaccine health behaviors in individuals. Understanding the descriptive, usability, information exchange, and privacy features of these 119 mHealth apps has the potential to provide researchers and health care professionals information concerning features that should be considered when designing vaccination apps as a public health instrument.
There is conflicting literature on the overall effectiveness of mHealth apps to assist with improving vaccination coverage; however, our research yields recommendations for mHealth vaccination apps developed in the future. One recommendation is to incorporate a transdisciplinary research approach to mHealth app development, in which medical professionals, app developers, public health experts, and users can collaborate throughout the app development process. This ensures engagement from multiple stakeholders and reliable information exchange between agencies and users. As noted in the previous section, although our study was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, our findings could prove relevant for the ongoing monitoring of COVID-19 metrics, vaccination documentation, and beyond. One such example for mHealth apps is contact tracing for COVID-19 or serving as a liaison for information exchange between experts and users. A recent study described the most frequently installed features of contact-tracking apps as alert systems and government accountability . However, the need for the exchange of information for public health purposes in contact tracing diminishes the data protection of the users. This affects users’ uptake of these mHealth apps, and prior work has shown that many apps do not include participatory user involvement with contact-tracing apps [ ]. Future directions for this research include the development of a sustainable bidirectional information exchange framework for vaccination mHealth apps.
We conclude that our computational method was able to identify important features of vaccination apps correlating with end user experience and categorize those apps through cluster analysis (). Results from PC1 show that the top 5 features correlated with readability, and results from PC2 show that most of the top 5 features correlated with user customization. Results from our computational method provide evidence that data information exchange among different health care entities should be leveraged to provide patient-centric health care. Privacy and security concerns around the collection, storage, and sharing of health data should be addressed during the app design development process. Collaboration among multiple health stakeholders during design and development can improve the overall functionality of vaccination-related apps.
The authors would like to acknowledge the Office of Undergraduate Research online pilot, Paper Chase project, at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. The authors would also like to acknowledge Drs Jessamyn Bowling and Alicia Dahl, and Ms Lisa Krinner for supporting the students during this project.
GSJ designed and conducted the computational experiments and analyzed the results of the study. GSJ, DN, EP, RS, ML, and RA assisted with the writing and editing of every section of the manuscript. PA completed the descriptive statistics used in the study. QX assisted with the development of the codebook. SC assisted with the development of the codebook and provided overall direction for the project codebook implementation.
Conflicts of Interest
Completed k-means analysis using 5 clusters.DOCX File , 136 KB
List of names for the apps that are represented in each cluster using the k-means clustering method.DOCX File , 25 KB
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|EHR: electronic health record|
|HIPAA: Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act|
|mHealth: mobile health|
|PC: principal component|
|PCA: principal component analysis|
Edited by A Mavragani; submitted 28.01.22; peer-reviewed by T Giles-Vernick, P Nelson, J Ropero; comments to author 24.03.22; revised version received 31.05.22; accepted 16.06.22; published 11.10.22Copyright
©George Shaw Jr, Devaki Nadkarni, Eric Phann, Rachel Sielaty, Madeleine Ledenyi, Razaan Abnowf, Qian Xu, Paul Arredondo, Shi Chen. Originally published in JMIR Formative Research (https://formative.jmir.org), 11.10.2022.
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