A Long Way Before We Can Trust Mobile Health Apps, Say US Experts

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February 20, 2017

Mobile health apps available today can test hemoglobin levels, tell whether a person has osteoporosis and even check their lung function. As per estimates by IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics in 2015, there were around 1,65,000 mobile based health-care apps across the world, with a total of over one billion downloads.

Mobile applications, in recent years, have become popular in the health sector. But while there are plenty of apps that provide information, there are also concerns about the quality of advice given to patients.

"There are several hundred apps on mental health but very few with medical evidence. There is a huge opportunity to integrate science with these apps," said Gregory D Hager, Mandell Bellmore Professor, John Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering.

The hugely popular Fitbit bands for instance encourages people to walk 10,000 steps in a day. What is little known is that it bases itself on a study conducted on Japanese men over four decades ago that concluded it was the ideal number of steps an individual needs to walk every day to stay fit.

"You could actually amplify issues with such generic advice. You might be asked to walk 10,000 steps but what if you are not physically capable of doing it?" Hager questioned.

Cellphone apps are emerging as an especially popular and cheap way of diagnostics in several developing countries, including India. Recently the government of India launched NHP Swasth Bharat app to give information about prevention of non-communicable diseases such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes.

Health experts are also increasingly finding creative use for such technology. Patients at a cancer clinic in Northwest Georgia have an app on their electronic tablets to walk them through their cancer phase, Elizabeth D Mynatt, Professor, College of Computing, Georgia Tech tells us.

"As part of a program to monitor breast cancer patients, an app on these patients' tablet carries information about their diagnosis, gives them day-to-day updates and walks them through their cancer journey," she explained. The app works as an interactive intelligent web tool that handholds patients through their treatment, says Mynatt. "Using these tools helps us to lower disparities in some areas," she point out.

What is also making mobile diagnostics possible is the low cost involved. "Mobile apps can work just as well as a 10,000$ device. Even if it is not perfect, it is still a diagnostic tool," said Shwetak Patel, WRF Entrepreneurship Professor, University of Washington.

"Most of the changes needed to turn a mobile phone into a diagnostic tool are not hardware changes but simple software ones," Patel said.

For example, apps can use data from a cellphone's camera and flash-light to get an estimate of the user's hemoglobin levels and data from microphones, that are essentially pressure sensors, can be used to test for osteoporosis.

But can we rely on the apps enough to integrate it into public healthcare systems? "We are not there yet," said Hager.

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