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Technopathology – Apps health warning!

Hard on the heels of reports of increased back and neck problems in young people due to phones, tablets and laptops here is Des Spence ‘s view on health apps.  Can’t help but (mostly) agree.  Used appropriately (pun intended), however, they do have a place in nudging folk into a healthier lifestyle.

Warning over smartphone health apps   15/04/2015

SmartphoneHealth apps may encourage unnecessary anxiety and there is no clear evidence of their effectiveness, a GP warns today.

Dr Des Spence, of Glasgow, UK, writes in The BMJ that popular smartphone apps may even be harmful. These apps, of which there are tens of thousands, aim to encourage people to adopt healthy behaviours such as weight loss and exercise.

But Dr Spence believes that most of these apps are likely to be useless, and could be dangerous when used together with wearable heart rate or blood pressure monitors or used to aid self-diagnosis.

“These apps are morphing into something different,” he writes. “When used alongside wearable gizmos, apps offer continuous physical monitoring of things such as foetal heartbeat in pregnancy, blood pressure, heart rate, and even pulse oximetry [the oxygen level in the blood].

“Most medical research and diagnoses are based on isolated readings taken in medical clinics in symptomatic, older, high risk individuals, by doctors who can interpret results – not by young, asymptomatic, middle class neurotics continuously monitoring their vital signs while they sleep.”

But what happens if these gizmos malfunction or are placed in the wrong position? He asks. “The truth is that these apps and devices are untested and unscientific, and they will open the door of uncertainty. Make no mistake: diagnostic uncertainty ignites extreme anxiety in people.”

Currently, the US Food and Drug Administration and the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency are choosing not to regulate most new apps and devices.

However, Dr Spence calls for more scepticism over new medical technology. He concludes: “Wearable technology and medical apps? No thanks; I’ll take my chances.”

Spence, D. Head to head: Can healthy people benefit from health apps? BMJ 15 April 2015 doi: 10.1136/bmj.h1887

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