Tribune Media Services
Of the countless applications (apps) available for your computer tablet and smartphone, there are an estimated 40,000 health-related apps for consumers and physicians. But how do you know if these apps are safe and accurate?
"You don't," says Dr. Nathan Eagle, a mobile health technology expert and adjunct assistant professor at Harvard School of Public Health. "While most mobile apps are vetted by the app store to ensure they aren't compromising the user's privacy, there is very little formal vetting to certify the app can do what it claims it can do beyond basic user reviews."
Health-related apps are part of a revolution in health care known as mobile health, or mhealth. It's a simple concept: Mobile devices, particularly phones, are with people constantly and connected to the Internet. One of the "anytime, anywhere" services a mobile device can provide is health information.
That includes information for the user from the Internet, information from the user's doctor to the user (messages, or access to the user's medical record), and information from the user to his or her doctor (such as today's weight and blood pressure).
The apps are downloaded onto a device from the Internet, usually through sites such as the iTunes store or Google Play. Many apps are free, but many more must be purchased, with prices ranging from less than a dollar to a thousand dollars.
Some apps are simple tools, such as calorie counters, pedometers, medication managers, fitness videos and calculators to track and analyze your run times. Others are much more sophisticated, such as apps that measure your heart rate, blood sugar or blood pressure.
Many of these turn your phone into a monitor or tracking device with the help of accessories that do the work, such as a blood pressure cuff you plug into your phone.
Unfortunately, health apps are not yet regulated. That means there's no way to know which apps are accurate and reliable and which are technological snake oil. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is just now in the process of developing the rules by which it will judge health apps that make medical claims.
A probe by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found many health apps claim to diagnose or cure medical conditions. Eagle says such claims are troubling.
"You don't want to rely on your phone to diagnose or treat anything, because you can't be sure. When it comes to diagnosis, a smartphone is no substitute for a medical health professional," he says.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology found three out of four apps that evaluate whether moles are the deadly skin cancer melanoma often failed to recognize true melanomas. And last year, the Federal Trade Commission levied fines against two app makers for claiming they could cure acne.
In contrast, Eagle says it is safe to use apps that act as trackers or calculators.
"The vast majority of health apps help you collect data about yourself, show you exercise routines, track your movement, and tell you how many calories you've burned. Those are wonderful apps and are completely safe," he notes. "They use the phone as a sensor but refrain from making the jump to diagnostics."
Eagle recommends you check to see who produces the app, how often the app is updated, and if it provides references for the information it offers. Go for well-known health brands, such as government agencies and research universities.
In other words, you can join the mhealth revolution and take advantage of the information available at your fingertips, as long as you scrutinize the information you find on your cellphone in the same way you would on the Internet: carefully.
When using health apps
• DO select from well-known health brands, such as government agencies and research universities.
• DO use the app as a sensor or monitor.
• DON'T rely on the app to diagnose or cure medical conditions