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Among the smartphone apps currently available are a number aimed at improving our health, whether we have acne, diabetes, or are worried about a mole on our skin. Some are a waste of money and others downright dangerous so are they really any help?

Smartphone ownership continues to grow across all age sectors.  As well as using them to stay in contact with work, family and friends, people are increasingly using specialized pieces of software – ‘apps’- on their smartphones to help with an array of other tasks.  Increasingly this might include managing their health, as this is a rapidly-growing area of the apps market, estimated to reach $26 billion globally by 2017. 

There are already estimated to be 97,000 mobile health applications in major app stores.

Of these, about 85% are aimed at helping us manage our health (the others are for medical professionals).  But are they really helpful and can they be trusted?

Diagnostic apps

Apps currently available can roughly be divided into three categories – diagnostic, treatment and monitoring or managing health.  Looking at diagnosis first, it takes a very sophisticated app to be able to take the place of a trained physician with many years of experience.  Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center tested four apps which claimed to be able to diagnose skin cancer known as malignant melanoma. They used photographs of actual cases of melanoma, and also of non-cancerous skin conditions, to test the apps.  Worryingly the ability of the apps to detect the serious malignant condition ranged from as little as 6.8% to a more reassuring 98.1%.  

But at the lower end of the scale this means that over 90% of the time the app would miss the melanoma. 

It seems that the apps were better at spotting when it wasn’t cancer – with negative predictive values of 65.4 to 97%. So at least the apps tested would not be causing unnecessary alarm by indicating cancer when it wasn’t.  But the rate at which some were missing the melanoma is alarming. Delay in diagnosis of serious conditions like malignant melanoma can have significant consequences.

Treatment apps

These do not seem to be too common and the ones which have hit the news appear to be the bad ones.  In 2012 the Federal Trade Commission issued fines to two developers who sold apps claiming to cure acne. It seems the apps were based on a report in a British dermatology journal which showed that treatment of acne with red and blue light improved the condition.  The apps had people hold their smartphones up to their faces for a few minutes a day. 

The FTC concluded that the research did not show that the light treatment cured acne and that buyers of the apps had wasted their time and money. Not to mention the hopes that had been raised.
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