JAMA: Too many mHealth apps, too little verification

The mHealth app industry faces a slew of challenges with data security, user privacy and regulatory concerns often cited as top worries. But the potential of too many apps invading the marketplace, with many going unvetted, also is a concern that demands attention, according to a new research paper.

Consumer downloads of mHealth apps hit 660 million in 2013, according to a report from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, and that figure has likely spiked given the past two years of new mHealth devices and increasing awareness of mHealth software by both users and caregivers.

But, as an article published at the Journal of the American Medical Association points out, the number of viable, safe and beneficial mHealth apps is a big unknown; many apps could potentially be problematic for users and caregivers.

"There are tons and tons of apps and very little in the way of guidance for physicians or consumers on how to separate the wheat from the chaff," Aaron S. Kesselheim, M.D., an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, tells JAMA. That's because many apps have not been verified or proven to be safe and useful by either a regulatory organization or even the app creators, according to the article.

The paper cites a case-control study that assessed diagnostic accuracy of four apps designed to help separate benign from malignant skin lesions found three of four apps misidentified 30 percent or more of melanoma lesions as being benign.

"The apps can be very useful [but also] present substantial risk," Kesselheim says.

That's exactly the scenario playing out with a federal agency and two mHealth vendors' skin cancer apps. As FierceMobileHealthcare reported in February, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken action against two melanoma app makers for unsubstantiated claims and is investigating potential charges for similar reasons against two others. In January, the FTC settled with a computer software maker regarding deceptive claims relating to a computer game that promised to increase a child's mental abilities.

Yet all within the mHealth app landscape is not negative or potentially dangerous, notes the article. "While apps are not a panacea for all patients or providers, they may help better engage some patients," it says, citing that one diabetes management app's deployment data is proving to be very beneficial to patients.

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