Since then, the Food and Drug Administration has been mired in a debate over how to oversee these high-tech products, and government officials have not pursued any other app developers for making medically dubious claims. Now, both the iTunes store and the Google Play store are riddled with health apps that experts say do not work and in some cases could even endanger people.
These apps offer quick fixes for everything from flabby abs to alcoholism, and they promise relief from pain, stress, stuttering and even ringing in the ears. Many of these apps do not follow established medical guidelines, and few have been tested through the sort of clinical research that is standard for less new-fangled treatments sold by other means, a probe by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
While some are free, thousands must be purchased, at prices ranging from 69 cents to $999. Nearly 247 million mobile phone users around the world are expected to download a health app in 2012, according to Research2Guidance, a global market research firm.
In an examination of 1,500 health apps that cost money and have been available since June 2011, the center found that more than one out of five claims to treat or cure medical problems. Of the 331 therapeutic apps, nearly 43 percent relied on cellphone sound for treatments. Another dozen used the light of the cellphone, and two others used phone vibrations. Scientists say none of these methods could possibly work for the conditions in question.
“Virtually any app that claims it will cure someone of a disease, condition or mental health condition is bogus,” says John Grohol, an expert in online health technology, pointing out that the vast majority of apps have not been scientifically tested. “Developers are just preying on people’s vulnerabilities.”
Satish Misra, a physician and the managing editor of the app review Web site iMedicalApps, adds: “They take some therapeutic method that is real — and in some cases experimental — and create a grossly simplified version of that therapy using the iPhone. Who knows? Maybe it works.” But until testing shows otherwise, “my feeling would be that it doesn’t.”
To be sure, there are many outstanding health apps, particularly those intended for doctors and hospitals, that are helping to revolutionize medical care, according to physicians and others. Among the most well-regarded apps for consumers: Lose It for weight loss, Azumio to measure heart rates, and iTriage to check symptoms and locate hospitals with the shortest emergency room wait times.
But consumers have almost no way of distinguishing great high-tech tools from what Prunty called the “snake oil.” Without government oversight or independent testing of apps, people mainly must rely on developers’ advertisements and anonymous online reviews, many of which are positive but some, such as this one, are not: “Shame on Apple for even allowing this piece of crap on here. . . . It preys on people with health issues.”