Health Apps Don’t Recognize Real Danger: Study


If you’re using apps to manage your health – listen up. Many won’t warn you of a medical emergency, a recent study reveals.  

The study, published in the journal Health Affairs, found problems even with apps considered to be among the best on the market.

“The state of health apps is even worse than we thought,” said Dr. James Madara, chief executive of the American Medical Association, who was not involved in the study.

There’s been a rapid increase of health apps for mobile phones. And, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, there are over 165,000 health apps available.

Doctors examined 137 apps during the study. They selected only the “cream of the crop” available from the Apple iTunes and Google Play app stores. Most of them are free.

Different from apps that track steps or daily caloric intake, the apps reviewed are designed for patients with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Often, though, these apps were rated poorly by doctors.

“We found that the consumer-generated rating on the app store is a very poor marker of how usable an app is, and whether a physician would recommend it,” said Karandeep Singh, M.D., MMSc, who led the study.  

Many of the apps aim to help patients track their condition day-to-day, stay on track with medication, share information electronically with their medical teams, and receive education and encouragement between doctor visits. Some apps, for example, help those with diabetes keep track of blood sugar readings and insulin injections, while another allows users to photograph moles and offer analysis on whether or not they are indicative of skin cancer.

The study suggests that while some apps are good, there are glaring issues.  

One major concern is when researchers entered a dangerous value — such as alarmingly high blood pressure, abnormally low blood sugar or thoughts of suicide — the results were worrisome.

Only 28 of 121 apps reacted appropriately to such cautionary information, researchers said.

“Do we really want our mHealth [mobile Health] apps to be passive observers, or should we expect that they do more than that, and model themselves after crisis hotlines with specific action plans?” Singh asks. “The vast majority of apps do not have any kind of response.”

Another issue is medical privacy. While nearly all the apps in the study let people enter information into their phones, some of it is being shared through insecure methods like text message or email. And, according to a March study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sensitive medical information may be transmitted to third parties like aggregators or advertising networks.    

During the study, each app was assessed by a doctor and tech expert. The researchers named many of the apps but did not share their reviews publicly. Instead, they shared them with the app companies.

Singh said they were interested in “identifying gaps that need to be filled” and not naming winners and losers. He went on to say that the industry needs to do more work to improve safety and privacy.

Improvements may be on the way. According to Madara, the doctors organization has been working with others to form a group to look at health apps and standards. “It’s the Wild West out there,” he said.