Medical Apps: Gambling With Your Health

Mobile applications claim to inform you about health issues or to detect or monitor medical issues. Some do, but others just siphon bucks from your pocket—and could sway you incorrectly from seeking direct medical assistance. Worse, federal regulation addresses only a narrow sliver of apps.

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When Brett Shamosh saw his doctor during a severe flare-up of inflammatory bowel disease, the doctor asked him the usual questions about what might have triggered the flare-up, and Shamosh recognized the inadequacy of his answers. So, he built one of the first mobile applications in 2009 for tracking daily activities and symptoms of that specific disease.

When he uses his free app—Shamosh sold his company, WellApps, to health-monitoring company Medivo—his smartphone sends him reminders to type his symptoms into the app at least once per day and note his pain level, his food intake and his medication usage. He also can type questions for his doctor into the app, and the app organizes data that can be sent to his doctor to help his doctor to identify patterns. The app, Shamosh says, helps him to learn what medical dosages he can tolerate and which foods mask the benefits of his medications.

“I got better quicker as a result of this and am better prepared for my next flare,” Shamosh says. The app also allows him to answer his doctor’s questions accurately. “If that information isn’t accurate, you’re not going to get well as quickly as possible.”

Other apps, however, are more ambitious. Do you have an odd-looking mole but can’t get to a dermatologist? You can download a $3.99 app to take a picture of your mole and run the image through an algorithm to tell you whether the mole’s features have a low risk or a high risk of being melanoma, which is a dangerous form of skin cancer. That sounds handy, but the trouble is that no independent studies determine whether the app is accurate. Consequently, if the app’s results dissuade you from seeing a doctor, the shortcoming could be deadly. “There’s no question that with melanoma, early detection is life-saving,” says Dr. Iltifat Husain, who is the co-founder of review site and a doctor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest University.

Such is the allure—and the danger—of medical apps that claim to help you to manage medical conditions.

For the purposes of our discussion, health apps are those that provide general information about such topics as diet, exercise and first aid and help you to perform such functions as counting calories and tracking weight loss. Although these apps’ capabilities vary widely, they aren’t intended to have an effect on a specific medical condition.

Click chart above to view full presentation

Click chart above to view full presentation

Medical apps are intended to help with a medical condition, and that’s the rub: Some are bogus, some are merely inaccurate and some are accurate but don’t provide useful data. Others, of course, actually do what they say. Based on our discussions with 11 experts, we consider medical apps to be those that relate to monitoring, tracking, diagnosing or treating aspects of disease and are used by people who have established diseases. Further, apps that help you to learn about, track or refill prescriptions for medications also are medical apps, as are apps that let you find and access medical providers and find resources in your medical center or insurance plan. That’s because these apps can help you to manage a disease by helping you to monitor your medications and your interaction with doctors.

More health apps and medical apps seem to pop up every day. Nine percent of all U.S. adults have at least one health app or medical app on a smartphone, according to a 2012 report by Pew Research Center. At least 40,000 health and medical apps are available, according to Ben Chodor of Happtique, which rates health and medical apps. In comparison, reporters at technology-news website found 5,820 medical and health apps for smartphones in 2010. By April 2012, they found about 13,600 such apps that were aimed specifically at consumers.

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