mobile apps

Medical mobile apps: unchartered territory

This year about 250 million people will download a health-related mobile application (app) to their iOS or Android device. A new report issued by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NYCIR) says that many of these apps, especially the ones that promise to treat or cure a medical disease or condition, are worthless, and in some cases dangerous.

About one hundred years ago, similar issues were raised with medications, as unscrupulous “snake oil” (worthless) drugs were commonly sold without any government regulation. Then federal agencies were formed (such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1906), to bring oversight and accountability to the marketplace.

Anvisa, the Brazilian equivalent to the FDA, was only established in the 1990s, but now strictly controls any new medicine or device released in the country, checking for safety and efficacy. But for mobile apps, as you might guess, there is no regulation.

Based on the NYCIR report, here are a few points to help guide you in the medical app world:

1) If an app claims to cure any condition or disease, beware: it most likely does not work, or worse.

Here are some examples of bad apps. They purport to use tones or sounds from the phone, the cellphone light, or the phone vibration function to function. They do not work.

AcneApp (also Acne Pwner) You are told to hold the cellphone light to problem areas of your skin. According to the marketing material you only need to “Rest the iPhone against your skin’s acne-prone areas for two minutes daily to improve skin health without prescription drugs”. Worthless.

Cardiac Stress Test  This app has you measure your heart rate after doing 30 squats in a minute, and from that the app calculates: “if you are ready for sports or if your heart is not in a healthy condition.” Knowing if you are fit for exercise is more complicated than this, and “Cardiac Stress Test” could convince a person in bad condition that their heart is ok. This is a dangerous app.

AG Method  Supposedly to relieve pain.  You are asked to place the cellphone speaker “on your area of maximum pain” as it plays a tone, and a message “Healing in Progress” flashes on your cellphone screen.  This makes no sense, medically or scientifically.

uBaby (and similar apps) Produced in the Ukraine and sold for USD 29.99 in the iTunes store. Claims you can determine the sex of your baby by inserting various pieces of data, including birthdays of the grandparents, date of conception and so forth. Inaccurate and useless.

2) There are well-rated apps directed to the consumer, such as:

Azumio (free) to keep track of your heart rate;

Lose It (free) to help you keep track of calories in your diet;

iTriage (free) to help you evaluate symptoms.

While still uncommon, look for apps that were developed by a reputable hospital or medical school.

3) There are several good websites that evaluate medical apps:

But for now, the medical app world is still largely unchartered territory. Until there are government or impartial agencies that review or regulate apps, the best rule is: let the buyer beware.

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