Impatient | Helping make the health care system work for you

Health apps: How do we sort the good from the bad?

Nicola Delfino via Flickr Creative Commons

Last week, I reported on a study that found an app that measures your blood pressure through your smartphone is "highly inaccurate." According to the research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the Instant Blood Pressure app missed high blood pressure levels in nearly four out of five people.

The app's manufacturer argued the study was based on faulty methodology and thus invalid;  the lead researcher defended the findings.

The research raises some bigger questions: How can we as consumers determine which mobile health apps can improve our health and which apps might actually put our health at risk?

For some answers, I reached out to Dr. Seth Martin, an assistant professor of medicine and cardiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was also a co-author of the JAMA Internal Medicine research letter.

Martin offers these tips:

Tracking apps can help

Martin says he's cautious about which apps he recommends to patients, because at this point there's little evidence to substantiate their efficacy. He says apps most likely won't be integrated into routine clinical care until there's strong research confirming they work.

"Although we're seeing rapid consumer adoption [of health apps] and we're very hopeful that's helping people, within the context of the health care system, it's going to be a slower process," he says.

Still, Martin does recommend activity-tracking apps to his patients, even though he acknowledges their data aren't perfect.

"Having that information, we think, is certainly better than not tracking your physical activity at all," he says. 

Martin also recommends diet-tracking apps, which allow you to log what you eat. These types of apps, he says, make people more cognizant of what they're eating and have helped patients lose weight.

"Too good to be true?"

Martin advises people to be skeptical about apps that could put your health at risk if you don't use them correctly, or if they don't function correctly. This includes apps that purport to function as a medical device. 

"If there's a lot of black-box, under-the-hood algorithms to some app, and they really seem too good to be true, then question that," he says.

In those cases, Martin recommends checking to see whether the Food and Drug Administration has approved the app. The FDA says it intends to regulate apps that turn your smartphone or other device into what it calls, "mobile medical apps."

You can also check whether any academic institutions have independently investigated or verified the app's claims, he says.

There's good reason to do this sort of research: Last year, the Federal Trade Commission took action against two apps - MelApp and Mole Detective - that falsely claimed they could detect symptoms of early-stage melanoma. Their owners reached settlements that bar them from continuing to make that claim.

And last month, the FTC ordered a company to stop making the false claim that its app, UltimEyes, can improve eyesight. The FTC also fined the company $150,000.