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Challenges in Participant Engagement and Retention Using Mobile Health Apps: Literature Review

Updated: May 18, 2022



Mobile health (mHealth) apps are revolutionizing the way clinicians and researchers monitor and manage the health of their participants. However, many studies using mHealth apps are hampered by substantial participant dropout or attrition, which may impact the representativeness of the sample and the effectiveness of the study. Therefore, it is imperative for researchers to understand what makes participants stay with mHealth apps or studies using mHealth apps.


This study aimed to review the current peer-reviewed research literature to identify the notable factors and strategies used in adult participant engagement and retention.


We conducted a systematic search of PubMed, MEDLINE, and PsycINFO databases for mHealth studies that evaluated and assessed issues or strategies to improve the engagement and retention of adults from 2015 to 2020. We followed the PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) guidelines. Notable themes were identified and narratively compared among different studies. A binomial regression model was generated to examine the factors affecting retention.


Of the 389 identified studies, 62 (15.9%) were included in this review. Overall, most studies were partially successful in maintaining participant engagement. Factors related to particular elements of the app (eg, feedback, appropriate reminders, and in-app support from peers or coaches) and research strategies (eg, compensation and niche samples) that promote retention were identified. Factors that obstructed retention were also identified (eg, lack of support features, technical difficulties, and usefulness of the app). The regression model results showed that a participant is more likely to drop out than to be retained.


Retaining participants is an omnipresent challenge in mHealth studies. The insights from this review can help inform future studies about the factors and strategies to improve participant retention.

J Med Internet Res 2022;24(4):e35120


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