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When it comes to smartphone health apps, buyer beware

Many apps make claims not backed by any scientific evidence.

Don’t expect the government to be assertive about protecting consumers from fraudulent health-related apps anytime soon.
REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

“Snake-oil” medical treatments are very much with us in the 21st century. But instead of being peddled in small glass flasks, many are now sold as smartphone apps.

Who knew that the light from your smart-phone could improve acne or relieve seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? Or, if you’re a woman, that listening on your smartphone to the sound of a baby crying could enlarge your breasts? Or that entering your heart rate on an app calculator after completing 30 squats could let you know if you’re healthy enough to start an exercise program?

None of those claims has any scientific evidence to back it up, of course, but that hasn’t stopped the apps from being marketed to unsuspecting consumers, as Rochelle Sharp, a reporter for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, details this week in an article published in conjunction with the Washington Post.

Or rather, the lack of evidence hasn’t stopped all bogus health-apps from being sold. As Sharp notes in her article, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordered two app developers to stop making baseless claims about their ridiculous smartphone-light-as-acne-treatment apps last year.

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That’s two out of thousands.

Writes Sharp:

[B]oth the iTunes store and the Google Play store are riddled with health apps that experts say do not work and in some cases could even endanger people.

These apps offer quick fixes for everything from flabby abs to alcoholism, and they promise relief from pain, stress, stuttering and even ringing in the ears. Many of these apps do not follow established medical guidelines, and few have been tested through the sort of clinical research that is standard for less new-fangled treatments sold by other means, a probe by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

While some are free, thousands must be purchased, at prices ranging from 69 cents to $999. Nearly 247 million mobile phone users around the world are expected to download a health app in 2012, according to Research2Guidance, a global market research firm.

In an examination of 1,500 health apps that cost money and have been available since June 2011, the center found that more than one out of five claims to treat or cure medical problems. Of the 331 therapeutic apps, nearly 43 percent relied on cellphone sound for treatments. Another dozen used the light of the cellphone, and two others used phone vibrations. Scientists say none of these methods could possibly work for the conditions in question.

Virtually any app that claims it will cure someone of a disease, condition or mental health condition is bogus,” says John Grohol, an expert in online health technology, pointing out that the vast majority of apps have not been scientifically tested. “Developers are just preying on people’s vulnerabilities.”

Don’t expect the government to be assertive about protecting consumers from fraudulent health-related apps anytime soon. The Food and Drug Administration is drafting regulations, but, as Sharp reports, certain members of Congress are resisting. Last spring, six Republican members of Congress wrote to the FDA and the Federal Communications Commission with this warning: “Applying a complex regulatory framework could inhibit future growth and innovation in this promising market.”

Of course, not all health-related apps are the modern version of snake-oil medicine. “[T]here are many outstanding health apps, particularly those intended for doctors and hospitals, that are helping to revolutionize medical care, according to physicians and others,” writes Sharp.  “Among the most well-regarded apps for consumers: Lose It for weight loss, Azumio to measure heart rates, and iTriage to check symptoms and locate hospitals with the shortest emergency room wait times.”

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With government seemingly unable or unwilling to move switfly on this issue, private groups of concerned medical experts are taking matters into their own hands. The Greater New York Hospital Association, for example, will soon unveil the nation’s first app certification service, which will evaluate apps for safety and effectiveness, reports Sharp.

In the meantime, buyer beware.

You can read Sharp’s article on the Washington Post website.