warning: health apps may harm you - how can you tell?

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There are at least 100,000 health-related apps already available across the dominant mobile platforms (iOS and Android).

That’s great as connected health solutions become prevalent, but the lack of industry standards or an effective assessment system for apps that claim to make you more healthy is a complex challenge for consumers.

industry challenge

How do they figure out which apps are based on good science and will deliver positive results? What happens if they choose an app that uses poor science or even makes their condition worse? Consumers aren’t medical professionals, so how can they make good decisions?

It’s not just a problem for consumers. Medical staff are also embracing mobile health solutions, some US doctors already advise patients on which apps to use – at least one US medical centre has gone so far as to launch an on-site physical store where it is selling health apps and devices. Analysts, government and medical professionals believe healthcare is going to become more mobile, with patients turning to their mobile device to get the majority of their tertiary care, freeing up their doctor’s time to deal with real emergencies.

“With over 100,000 health apps in the Apple App Store and in Google Play, finding the right health app is a daunting task,” explains HealthTap CEO, Ron Gutman, admitting that doctors and patients had been contacting the company for app advice.

confusion and opportunity

Confusion surrounding which health apps are healthy also poses a challenge for health insurers – not only do these organisations have a financial incentive in keeping people healthy, but they also face duty of care considerations. This vacuum can’t continue, and Gutman’s HealthTap is attempting to address it, announcing HealthTap’s first AppRx report, in which thousands of doctors were asked to assess thousands of health apps in an attempt to tell good apps from bad.

“Until now, there’s been no way for people to tell if an app is medically accurate and helpful, if it promotes ideas that have no medical foundation, or even if it is harmful,” said Dr. Geoffrey Rutledge, HealthTap’s Chief Medical Officer.

HealthTap isn’t the first to attempt to create some form of rating scheme for health solutions. The recently acquired Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA) subsidiary, Happtique tried to create its own app certification and prescription platform before shutting its service down after a security issue. In the UK, NHS Choices provides its own very short list of NHS-reviewed apps for major mobile platforms, but lacks the resources to examine every app around.

It seems inevitable the industry will achieve some way to provide a credible recommendation system around health apps – and it may have to. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this January published a draft guidance document that aims to help health apps developers figure out when their product or marketing claims become subject to regulation. In very general terms, solutions that claim to treat conditions will need FDA approval, while those that simply promote better habits will not. However, it remains open to question how effective this fine FDA line will be when it comes to protecting consumers from unhealthy health apps in the long-term.

Meanwhile we have the HealthTap list, from which we’ve selected the top five health apps for Android and iOS:

iOS

  1. MyFitnessPal
  2. Weight Watchers
  3. Lose It!
  4. White Noise Lite
  5. First Aid by American Red Cross

Android

  1. Weight Watchers
  2. White Noise Light
  3. Lose It!
  4. First Aid by American Red Cross
  5. RunKeeper

 

You can download the complete HealthTap report here. Visit Orange Healthcare for some more information on how Orange is driving connected health.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men’s interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.