People place too much trust in apps for controlling their health

A little information can be a dangerous thing for consumers attempting to self-diagnose their ailments. The ease of use the Internet affords with its powerful search engines and plentiful content from medical websites (i.e., WebMD) is a tempting alternative to a doctor's visit for laymen in search of a disease. 

Add to that the allure of popular health apps running on ubiquitous smartphones, and you have a real recipe for disaster through misdiagnosis and mistreatment. According to Susannah Fox, associate director of digital strategy for the Pew Internet Project, 31 percent of cell phone owners and 52 percent of smartphone owners have used their phone to look up health or medical information, while 19 percent of smartphone owners have downloaded an app specifically to track or manage health. 

In fact, a recent U.S. survey found that a quarter of Americans said they trust symptom checker websites, symptom check mobile apps or home-based vital sign monitors as much as they do their doctors. In addition, about an equal proportion (26 percent) often use these resources instead of going to the doctor. Those are alarming statistics especially when you consider that consumers' trust in technology might be ill-advised and misplaced.

For instance, several popular smartphone apps designed to evaluate photographs of skin lesions about the likelihood of malignancy are not even accurate. A study found the performance of these apps in assessing melanoma risk to be "highly variable," with three of four apps in the study incorrectly classifying 30 percent or more of melanomas as "unconcerning."

"Reliance on these applications which are not subject to regulatory oversight, in lieu of medical consultation, can delay the diagnosis of melanoma and harm users," found the study. And, despite disclaimers that these apps are intended for educational purposes, researchers concluded that they have the potential to harm users who may believe mistakenly that the evaluation given by such an application is a substitute for medical advice.

Using an app instead of seeking medical advice from a trained healthcare professional is an inherent risk as more people leverage health apps on their smartphones. The potential for this kind of misguided behavior is greatest among younger people who are perhaps most comfortable with using mobile technology, hypochondriacs, and those Americans without medical insurance.

A doctor's opinion should be the primary one, first and foremost, in diagnosing disease. However, I fear that for many people, with the widespread availability of health apps, a physician only rates as a second opinion, at best, once they have made their own initial diagnosis leveraging technology. This is hardly the situation healthcare providers had in mind when they established as a goal patient empowerment and the idea of patients taking control of their own health. - Greg (@Slabodkin