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'Quack Apps' Make Claims You Should Question
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By Satish Misra, MD, Special to Everyday Health
There are a lot of great apps out there that can help you stay healthy. As physicians, we routinely recommend health apps and devices to our patients to help them eat better, exercise more, keep track of their medications, and take charge of their health.
That’s part of what drove us to start iMedicalApps, where our team of healthcare professionals provides free reviews of medical and health apps. We believe in the potential of digital health.
But we’ve also become more and more worried about the growing number of apps that claim to do things that just don’t check out. And worse, they could be putting your health at risk.
We first noticed this trend about five years ago when we came across apps that claimed to treat acne just by shining the blue light from your phone screen onto your skin. While dermatologists do sometimes use light therapy for a variety of skin conditions, they use devices that are more powerful and refined than a phone screen. And despite the fact that there was no scientific evidence to back up the apps' claims, people were spending money on them. Federal authorities caught up about a year later and fined two app developers for false advertising. (The similar acne app pictured here, Acne Light Waves, is also now off the market.)
A few years later, we came across several apps that claimed to diagnose skin cancer just by taking a picture of the spot you're worried about. A 2013 study published in JAMA Dermatology looked at these apps and showed that they weren't accurate. For example, if you used one of the apps that automatically analyzed the spot and it gave you an "all clear," there was still about a 1 in 3 chance the spot was actually cancerous. When dealing with a diagnosis like skin cancer, that's just not acceptable. Early this year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) went after these developers, too, and imposed hefty fines. The apps were removed from the market.
Despite these actions, there are still plenty of health apps on the market that have the potential to cause harm. For example, apps like InsulinSmart told patients how much insulin they should inject but did not have any safety or accuracy testing behind them.
You may be wondering, "Why don't Apple and Google do something about this?" On some level, they are. Over the years, Apple has instituted a variety of rules when it comes to IOS apps that include health information. However, it’s really more a patchwork of rules than a systematic screening process. And let's face it, both companies are constantly getting a flood of new app submissions.
"What about the government?" you might ask. "Aren’t there agencies that monitor this kind of thing?" Sort of. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has oversight over medications and medical devices in the United States. When it comes to apps and digital health devices, however, the FDA has made it clear they intend to only regulate a narrow range of these products.
The FTC jumps in this space occasionally, using their authority to penalize companies that mislead consumers.
But to be perfectly honest, neither agency really has the resources to screen the hundreds of health and medical apps and devices becoming available every month.
That means it’s left to us to be on guard and careful about which apps we choose to use to manage our health.
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