Smartphone ownership and perspectives on health apps among a vulnerable population in East Harlem, New York

Nita Vangeepuram, Victoria Mayer, Kezhen Fei, Emily Hanlen-Rosado, Cesar Andrade, Shari Wright, Carol Horowitz


Background: Individuals from low-income and racial/ethnic minority backgrounds have traditionally had less access to mobile health (mHealth) technologies, but there is evidence that this gap has been rapidly narrowing. Given the increase in access to mobile technologies recently seen in vulnerable populations, mHealth has been championed as a strategy for improving population health and reducing health disparities. However, members of low-income and racial/ethnic minority populations have had a limited role in the development and implementation of mHealth interventions designed to impact them.
Methods: We used community-based participatory research (CBPR), a research approach that is frequently employed to help reach communities that are disproportionately affected by illness but are difficult to engage. Our community-academic collaboration, the East Harlem Partnership for Diabetes Prevention, sought to create a mobile technology platform that would allow adults in East Harlem, New York to improve their own health and promote the health of the broader community. As a first step, we developed and conducted a survey of community residents to better understand access to, usage of, and attitudes towards mobile technologies among diverse, low-income adults. We administered the cross-sectional survey to a convenience sample of adults who utilized a variety of community-based organizations in East Harlem. We examined frequencies for each survey item and then used chi-square tests (or Fisher’s exact tests) and multivariate logistic regression to evaluate relationships between these outcomes and sociodemographic factors.
Results: We approached 154 people, of whom 104 (68%) agreed to participate. The majority of respondents were of Black and/or Hispanic/Latino descent with a mean age of 37 years. Our sample displayed a high percentage of smartphone ownership (82% of the participants reported that they owned a cell phone, and 88% of owners reported that their cell phone was a smartphone). We found lower rates of ownership among individuals who were older, self-identified as Latino, insured by Medicare, and had a household income of less than $30,000 per year. Multivariate logistic regression showed that after adjusting for age, gender and race, those with at least a high school education were seven times more likely to use health apps than those with less than a high school education (OR 6.8, 95% CI: 1.7–27.1). Participants expressed interest in health promoting apps that provide interactive, individualized diet, exercise and weight loss tools and offer information about local health resources and events.
Conclusions: Despite some notable disparities, our study results suggest that the digital divide is narrowing in the East Harlem community with relatively high rates of smartphone ownership and use, even among individuals from low-income, low education backgrounds and those without health insurance. Based on study results, our partnership developed an app supporting healthy lifestyle and diabetes prevention tailored to the East Harlem community.