Healthcare News & Insights

Warning for patients: Look out for bogus mobile health apps

mobile health apps

Many patients are using mobile health apps to take greater control of their own care and improve their health. But unfortunately, a lot of them may be duped by app developers selling 21st-century snake oil. 

As smartphones become more popular and people gain interest in improving their own wellness, more patients want to use smartphone apps to research health information, manage treatment plans or otherwise help with their conditions. Right now, more than half (52%) of smartphone owners say they’ve turned to their mobile device when they’ve had a medical question, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

And many want help from their doctor in this area — 50% of patients surveyed recently by the Varolli Corporation said receiving text messages, emails or smartphone apps from their doctor with tips, reminders or encouragement could have helped them avoid a health problem in the past.

In total, an estimated 247 million people worldwide will have downloaded a mobile health app in 2012 before the year is over, according to global market search firm Research2Guidance.

Many mobile health apps offer services to help remind patients to take medicine or undergo tests and treatments, and others track symptoms and offer personalized advice. Those tools can be beneficial, as shown by a 2011 study of mobile apps for diabetes management. The study found that over one year, patients using those apps lowered their glycated hemoglobin levels by 1.9%, compared to 0.7% for patients in a control group.

Many mobile health apps rely on flimsy science

While those mobile health tools can be beneficial, there’s a different kind of app doctors may want to warn patients about.

Many of the health tools available in major app stores claim they can use a smartphone’s hardware to actually cure or treat diseases and conditions. And, of course, the supposed supposed behind those apps doesn’t typically add up. Examples of health apps cited in a recent Washington Post article include:

  • AcneApp, previously available for the iPhone, which claimed to emit light from a smartphone in a way that could cure acne. The app was made unavailable after the FTC filed a complaint, but not before it was a downloaded 11,600 times, at a cost of $1.99.
  • iSAD Lamp, currently available in the iTunes App Store for $2.99, which claims to treat seasonal affective disorder using light from an iPhone’s screen. While light is used to treat SAD, the treatments offered by doctors require a light intensity far beyond what a smartphone is capable of producing.
  • AG Method, sold in iTunes for $9.99, claims to treat pain with sounds from the smartphone’s speaker.
  • uBaby, a $29.99 iPhone app that says it can help expecting parents choose the sex of their baby.

Of the 1,500 health apps that cost money and have been available since June 2011, 20% claim to treat medical problems, says Research2Guidance, often relying on sound, light or vibration from the phone. Beyond the financial implications, the real danger can arise when a patient forgoes medical treatment from a doctor in favor of trusting a smartphone app.

Doctors can offer guidance on mobile health apps

In addition to those bogus treatment apps, some educational apps can offer misleading and dangerous information to patients. Just as with websites and other sources of information, some mobile apps are more trustworthy than others.

But with the rapidly growing demand for mobile health tools, patients may not always be adept at distinguishing between what’s useful and what could potentially cause harm.

Despite the dangers, patients don’t seem to be getting much guidance from their doctors — fewer than half of physicians say they either actively encourage the use of mobile health apps (27%) or actively discouraged it (13%).

However, doctors could help patients better manage their care by researching what mobile health apps are useful for their conditions, and offering advice on how to avoid apps that won’t deliver positive outcomes.

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