Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 34, Issue 12, pp 2833–2841 | Cite as

Commercialization of User Data by Developers of Medicines-Related Apps: a Content Analysis

  • Quinn GrundyEmail author
  • Kellia Chiu
  • Lisa Bero
Original Research



Developers of medicines-related apps collect a variety of technical, health-related, and identifying user information to improve and tailor services. User data may also be used for promotional purposes. Apps, for example, may be used to skirt regulation of direct-to-consumer advertising of medicines. Researchers have documented routine and extensive sharing of user data with third parties for commercial purposes, but little is known about the ways that app developers or “first” parties employ user data.


We aimed to investigate the nature of user data collection and commercialization by developers of medicines-related apps.


We conducted a content analysis of apps’ store descriptions, linked websites, policies, and sponsorship prospectuses for prominent medicines-related apps found in the USA, Canada, Australia, and UK Google Play stores in late 2017. Apps were included if they pertained to the prescribing, administration, or use of medicines, and were interactive. Two independent coders extracted data from documents using a structured, open-ended instrument. We performed open, inductive coding to identify the range of promotional strategies involving user data for commercial purposes and wrote descriptive memos to refine and detail these codes.

Key Results

Ten of 24 apps primarily provided medication adherence services; 14 primarily provided medicines information. The majority (71%, 17/24) outlined at least one promotional strategy involving users’ data for commercial purposes which included personalized marketing of the developer’s related products and services, highly tailored advertising, third-party sponsorship of targeted content or messaging, and sale of aggregated customer insights to stakeholders.


App developers may employ users’ data in a feedback loop to deliver highly targeted promotional messages from developers, and commercial sponsors, including the pharmaceutical industry. These practices call into question developers’ claims about the trustworthiness and independence of purportedly evidenced-based medicines information and may create a risk for mis- or overtreatment.



The authors would like to acknowledge Chris Klochek, MSc, for developing the app store crawling program.


This work was funded by a grant from the Sydney Policy Lab at The University of Sydney. Quinn Grundy was supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they do not have a conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

11606_2019_5214_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (490 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 490 kb)


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of NursingUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.School of Pharmacy, Charles Perkins CentreThe University of SydneyCamperdownAustralia

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