Apps to monitor your health on the iphone
Apps have now become an important tool to one’s guide. But can all of them be trusted?
A bodybuilder presses the iPhones camera with a fingertip, and his heart rate and blood oxygen levels appear on the screen. A fellow in pajamas steps onto a scale, peers at his smartphone, and sighs dejectedly. A runner races along the waterfront, a cellphone strapped to her pumping arms. Apples television commercials for the iPhone 5 portrayed the device as not just a smartphone, but a health and fitness tool. And indeed, iPhones, Androids and now even the Apple Watch provide countless applications to help with motivation and organization. But a subset of these apps go further, purporting to function as medical devices to track blood pressure, treat acne, even test urine samples. Amid a proliferation of such apps, physicians and federal regulators are sounding an alarm, saying that programs claiming to diagnose or treat medical conditions may be unreliable and even dangerous.
Theres just no plausible medical way that some of these apps could work, said Nathan Cortez, an expert in medical technology law and regulation at Southern Methodist Universitys law school in Dallas.
In an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine last summer, Cortez cautioned that unreliable and unregulated health apps could pose a significant threat.Besides wasting your money, these apps may actually do harm, Cortez said in an interview. If you’re diabetic and your app is misreading your blood glucose levels, you may give yourself more insulin than you need and go into diabetic shock. More than 100,000 health apps are available in the iTunes and Google Play stores, according to Research2guidance, a mobile market research firm. By 2017, it estimates, the market for such tools, known as mHealth apps, will be $26 billion. Broadly defined, there could be hundreds of millions of mHealth users, Cortez said. For some users, apps that help chart health are undoubtedly a good thing. Keith Wick, a 29-year-old information systems technician for the state of California, manages his Type 1 diabetes on his Android smartphone.
Wick keeps track of his blood sugar levels by entering data six times a day onto a virtual spreadsheet.
I’m on my phone all day, and I find it easier to keep track in a digital form, he said. Its much easier than keeping a tiny piece of paper with you, and folding it and refolding it into your pocket throughout the day. Beyond serving as virtual notebooks, some apps work with external sensors. The AliveCor heart monitor, for example, incorporates a case, approved by the Food and Drug Administration, that fits around an iPhone to monitor basic heart rhythms.
The most reliable medical apps tend to result from collaborations among developers, physicians and experts in health law. HemMobile, a Pfizer app that helps hemophilia patients track their infusions, was supervised by a company review committee that consisted of a physician, a regulatory professional and a legal expert. Every aspect of the HemMobile program, from display to medical terminology, required the committees approval.
Its a very efficient system, said Bartholomew J. Tortella, a medical director on the hemophilia team at Pfizer. We sign off on the idea, it gets built, it comes back, we test it, and we approve it.
But untested mHealth apps are occasionally presented as replacements for legitimate medical equipment. In some cases, the apps have drawn government scrutiny.
In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission fined a developer who claimed that his program, AcneApp, could treat acne with the light from an iPhone screen. Before it was removed from the iTunes store, almost 12,000 people had downloaded it. Last year, the FDA, which regulates medical devices, sent a letter to Biosense Technologies inquiring about its uChek app, which is designed to use the iPhones camera to interpret urinalysis strips. The app is no longer sold in the iTunes store for the United States.
Patients rely on these apps when they should be seeking real medical advice, Cortez said. Missed chances are a kind of harm.
Less rigorous health apps may include a disclaimer noting that the app is meant for entertainment purposes only. But fine print does not dissuade some consumers.
Its much easier than keeping a tiny piece of paper with you, and folding it and refolding it into your pocket throughout the day