AI in the mix as NIH continues seeking health apps to fund

It’s no longer novel to see the NIH award money to developers of smartphone apps that either promote health or manage sickness. In fact, the field has gotten quite crowded. However, the funding opportunities remain numerous for innovators who apply evidence-based medical science to their proposals.

That’s according to two researchers who reviewed NIH funding activities within this realm and published their findings online July 29 in JMIR mHealth and uHealth.

William Hansen, PhD, of Prevention Strategies in North Carolina and Lawrence Scheier, PhD, of the LARS Research Institute in Arizona queried NIH’s RePORT tool for proposals submitted in the five-year period 2014 through 2018.

After identifying 397 grant proposals for apps that qualified as “intervention” aids—those intended to help with treatment adherence, behavior modification, appointment reminders and so on—the researchers analyzed the proposal abstracts and recorded trends and patterns.

Homing in on the apps that won funding, Hansen and Scheier found that most of these innovations advanced at least one, and sometimes two, of various intervention approaches.

These included:

  • Monitoring and feedback: 192 apps
  • Education and information: 85 apps
  • Skills training: 85 apps
  • Cognitive and behavioral therapies: 68 apps
  • Facilitating, reminding and referring: 60 apps
  • Social support and social networking: 59 apps
  • AI: 57 apps
  • Enhanced motivation: 50 apps
  • Bionic adaptation: 33 apps
  • Contingency management: 24 apps
  • Mindfulness training: 18 apps

The team further observed that the number of grants winning funding came quite close to doubling over the study period, rising from 60 in 2014 to 112 in 2018.

The most frequently observed grant types included Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants (40.8%) and Research Project Grants (R01s) (26.2%).

“Smartphone intervention apps are increasingly competitive for NIH funding,” the authors concluded. “They reflect a wide diversity of approaches that have significant potential for use in applied settings.”

In their discussion, Hansen and Scheier underscore that all the abstracts they analyzed represented proposed projects that underwent rigorous peer review and succeeded in getting funded.

“NIH funds anywhere between 10% and 20% of submitted applications on an annual basis,” the authors point out. “Successfully competing for NIH funding therefore provides some assurance that the abstracts reviewed represent the state of the science.”