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Chris Nace
Chris Nace
Attorney • (202) 930-0292

An Unhealthy Habit: Using Phone Apps for Medical Advice

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According to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, there are currently more than 165,000 health apps out there for Android and iOS smartphones and tablets. While some are simply either a coach or a convenience—think fitness trackers, runner’s logs or even a primer on yoga poses—there are number of apps that potentially cross the line into the territory of healthcare practitioner.

 

Chronic Condition? There’s an App for That

A recent study published in the December issue of Health Affairs investigated a total of 137 apps designed for patients suffering from chronic health problems that required routine observation, tracking and management. These included such illnesses as heart disease, asthma, diabetes, cancer and even depression. What researchers found is that, while some level of helpful functionality existed with all the apps tested, many reacted with inappropriate if not life-threatening advice when users entered potentially dangerous health information such as a high blood pressure reading.

For example, there are numerous apps available to those with diabetes that allow them to record and track blood sugar readings and insulin injections. Important data that can help patients manage their condition, but the study points out that only 23 percent of the tracking apps offered an appropriate response when an abnormally low blood sugar level was entered.

 

Not All Apps Are Created Equal

Researchers did find that the “helpfulness” of the apps often varied on the populations they served—asthma suffers fared better than diabetics when it came to data-tracking apps as close to half of these apps offered appropriate reactions to unhealthy situations. It’s also important to note that consumer ratings can be misleading when it comes to indicating the app’s true effectiveness. Four stars might refer to the ease-of-use or customizability of the app, but not necessarily its functionality or accuracy as compared to consulting with an actual healthcare professional.

Beyond the issue of poor guidance or a total lack thereof, many of these apps also pose a significant threat to the privacy and security of an individual’s medical data via the capability to share collected data with others. Granted that there are many situations where such functionality is beneficial—such as a parent monitoring a diabetic child’s overall control or an adult offspring keeping tabs on an elderly parent’s progress with arthritis or chronic pain management—but how some apps allow for this sharing opens the possibility to unauthorized access and abuse. More than half the apps tested allowed data to be sent via insecure emails and 17 percent actually traded data through MMS text messages.

 

Count on Your Doctor to Prescribe the Best Remedy

So what’s your best bet for avoiding future headaches and other health risks? First is to question whether you really need the app or not. The potential to possibly do more harm than good usually outweighs any perceived benefit of convenience. Second is that you’ll want to talk with your physician—their knowledge of your condition and past health history, combined with a personal interest in your overall welfare should provide a level of trust that can’t be found within any online app store.