How mHealth developers can avoid ethical dilemmas

When using mobile tools for healthcare purposes, ethical standards must be taken into account, dealing with everything from development of devices and apps to determining what data should be collected and how it should be shared.

In a viewpoint published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, health researchers from Australia and the United Kingdom outline the challenges mHealth presents, and how providers and developers can ensure such issues are addressed.

Highlights from the article include:

  • When it comes to de-identification and anonymity, developers must communicate with users about the option, as well as about the use of third-party data use
  • For storage and data transmission, the risk of privacy breaches can be minimized by "thoughtful consideration" of how data is stored on devices and shared among clinical treatment teams
  • Developers should record and transmit only the minimal amount of data necessary for the purpose of the app or device
  • Tools should maximize opportunities for users to control what data are shared with the clinical/research team, such as through the use of pop-up messages asking whether they consent to specific information being shared

"Given the complex array of symptoms and differences in comfort and literacy with technology, it is likely that these solutions will need to be individualized," the authors say. "It is therefore critical that developers of mHealth apps engage with patients throughout the development process to ensure that the technology meets their needs."

The ethical issues around mHealth are one reason consumers are wary of health devices, and many deal closely with the privacy of what is a person's most private information. A recent Parks Associates report found that about 35 percent of consumers say they fear their health data will not remain confidential if put online, and 23 percent of broadband household owners cite privacy and security concerns in using connected health devices.

The JMIR viewpoint's authors add that there currently is no regulation of mHealth devices or apps, and no guarantee that they provide clinically accurate information. However, this summer the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released guidelines for how it intends to regulate the marketing of mHealth apps that meet the definition of medical devices.

 For more information:
- read the JMIR viewpoint