Could Health Apps Be Bad for Your Health?

Last April, The BMJ published a paper called “Can healthy people benefit from health apps,” where Dr. Iltifat Husain and Dr. Des Spence weighed in on the pros and cons of health apps, respectively.

Iltifat, the editor-in-chief of iMedicalApps.com, argued the aforementioned apps encouraged accountability. Since these apps give a clearer, more accurate view of your overall health, you’re more likely to make better decisions regarding the same. He recommended doctors and patients work together to maximize this technology and warned against waiting too long for the latest scientific studies before deciding on what to do with available apps.

Spence, on the other hand, expressed concerns health apps defeat their own purpose. Rather than spending time monitoring every single vital sign, he argued, why not just live life to the fullest, without having to check your calorie counter every five minutes? Also, since many of these apps are untested, unscientific and unregulated by the FDA, Spence cautioned health practitioners against thoughtlessly using these as medical tools.

Neither of these points are “more correct” than the other. Still, they both deserve closer scrutiny. Let’s start with Dr. Spence’s side.

Could Health Apps Be Bad for Your Health?

The Bad and the Ugly

Yes, the unscrupulous do take advantage of the wide-open medical app market. AcneApp and Acne Pwner, for instance, were slapped with charges by the FTC for claiming to treat acne with colored light. The same thing happened to MelApp and Mole Detective, both of which can supposedly detect early symptoms of melanoma. And some people have claimed fitness bands actually make you gain weight, instead of the other way around.

The overall statistics on health apps aren’t encouraging, either. Of the 43,000 “health apps” available on the Apple iTunes, only 16,275 — or a little over 40 percent — are directly related to patient health and treatment, according to IMS. And this doesn’t take into account whether the apps belonging to that 40 percent work the way they should.

Despite this, IMS acknowledged these apps can complement and supplement traditional health care methods. After all, when health apps work, they work beautifully.

The Good and the Awesome

For instance, a woman turned to HealthTap — a website and mobile application — after her doctor dismissed her symptoms as “anxiety.” When a HealthTap contributor, who happened to be another doctor, said her symptoms possibly indicated a blocked artery, she wasted no time in consulting a cardiology specialist, who recommended she get a coronary stent.

On another occasion, an unnamed app saved the life of a 54-year-old New Jersey woman. Her son, who created the app, noted it registered her heartbeat as abnormal. At first, she didn’t think much of it; being a family doctor herself, she felt confident she was fit and well. However, after noticing she felt exhausted every time she ran during a family ski trip, she finally decided to consult a doctor. The doctor told her she had mitral valve regurgitation, a condition where a heart valve doesn’t shut properly, which can cause heart failure if left untreated.

More recently, a mobile healthcare app called PulsePoint made headlines in 2014, when it alerted EMS dispatchers to a one-month-old baby suffering from cardiac arrest in a local store. All these incidents demonstrate the power of health apps — with, without or even in spite of a doctor’s intervention.

Of course, these incidents aren’t isolated. According to a survey by Pew Research Center, 46 percent of those who track health-related numbers reported a change in their overall approach to health. Furthermore, 40 percent said health apps prompted them to ask their doctors more questions, while 34 percent reported an effect on the way they treated illnesses in general.

That’s not to say doctors need to worry about health apps replacing them. Pew Research Center’s survey results suggest 70 percent still rely on licensed medical practitioners for information. In other words, even if these apps make self-diagnosis easier, most people prefer the opinion of a professional.

From this, it’s clear health apps still have their merits. They might not be perfect, but they have contributed to people not taking their health for granted. The key to maximizing these apps is to choose them carefully, as follows:

  • Set realistic expectations for the apps you download. As mentioned earlier, health apps should be treated as a complement, not a substitute, for medical treatment. While a calorie counter can contribute to weight loss, for instance, the patient should also take other factors — genetics, type of calories consumed, physical activity — into account when designing a weight loss program.
  • Avoid apps that seem too good to be true. If an app makes outlandish claims, like “can cure a hundred completely unrelated diseases,” stay away. Instead, use two or more reliable apps that complement each other.
  • Avoid apps that endorse unusual treatment methods. If an app recommends a treatment you’ve never heard of before (e.g. AcneApp and Acne Pwner), look for another app.
  • Look up the developer. Check whether the developer has created any other apps and whether these apps have positive reviews from previous users. If it’s the only one that developer has ever created, and you don’t see any genuine-looking positive reviews for it, it’s better to look for something else.
  • Look for apps backed by reliable organizations. Examples include CDC Health Tips (Center for Disease Control), MyStart! (American Heart Association), and Daily Food Plan (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture).
  • Check the privacy policy. Does the app clearly state what it intends to do with your personal information? If yes, you can make better decisions on whether to download that particular app or not.
  • Check the disclosures/disclaimers section. It’s better if the app explicitly states it’s not meant to be a substitute for professional medical help.
  • Go with your gut. If the app passes all the criteria above, and you still feel uneasy about it, you can either pass on it, or ask your doctor for a second opinion.

Health apps are neither “good” nor “bad.” Their efficacy ultimately depends on whoever is using them and for what purpose. If you want health apps to pull their weight for you, you should pull your weight in researching the best apps available, too.

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