At the beginning of the year I received a call from Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and investigative journalism professor Rochelle Sharpe, who was planning to begin a project that looked at some of the worst medical apps available — or previously available — in app stores. Sharpe was working with a small group of Boston University journalism students to comb through Apple’s AppStore and Google’s Android Market (now called Google Play), to find apps that made spurious claims in an effort to take advantage of people.
So many publications had spent the time to put together top ten lists for the (so-called) “best health apps”, Sharpe pointed out at the time, why hadn’t anyone taken the time to raise awareness about some of the worst?
Sharpe asked me to come in and speak to the students on one of the first days of the class to discuss MobiHealthNews’ own app categorization efforts. Our report on the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation into two decidedly misleading apps that used light from a smartphone’s screen to “cure” acne, helped inspire the BU team’s investigation. The FTC removed those two “acne cure” apps in mid-2011.
Over the course of the spring semester the BU students reviewed about 1,500 health-related smartphone applications in the Apple and Google stores to find apps that claimed to make some kind of diagnostic. According to a report penned by Sharpe that was published in the Washington Post this week, the students found that of the 1,500 apps reviewed by the students 331 claimed to offer some kind of therapy. About 43 percent used the smartphone’s microphone or speakers for treatments, while another dozen use light from the smartphone’s screen. Still two others used the phone’s vibrations as a therapy. Importantly, all of these were paid apps — not free ones that could be easily dismissed as recreational and just for fun.
Interestingly, Sharpe was able to track down some of the app developers who offered seemingly spurious diagnostic apps to see what they had to say for themselves.
It is often said that there is no Consumer Reports for health apps. While the veritable authority on what works and doesn’t for consumers has offered up its own list of health-related apps in the past — here’s one such list from Consumer Reports from three years ago — it doesn’t review health apps on a regular basis.
The basic premise of the investigation undertaken by Sharpe and her students — that the worst apps should be outed along with the best — is a persuasive one. One thing that sets paid health apps apart from other apps is that they could cause harm, or at least prey on people’s insecurities and health issues, in a way that a gaming app or music app can’t. The very worst apps deserve to be called out and removed if it means helping a small group of people to avoid wasting money — and perhaps more — on them.
Maybe efforts from groups like Happtique, which is developing its own health app certification process, should be transparently promoting those apps that pass its tests along with a list of those that failed. It’s unclear how many apps have failed to get through the FDA process and, as a result, never seen the light of day. Sharpe quotes the FTC as saying the two acne apps it removed from app stores were the only ones it has pursued.
It’s unclear whether other, similar apps removed themselves of their own volition or because the app store managers kicked them out. As Sharpe’s report notes, it is clear that similar apps have departed app stores since the FTC’s action last year.
At this point mobile health doesn’t need more cheerleaders — more than anything it needs watchdogs. Those in the business or service of app certification and reviews should not shy away from outing apps that don’t meet their criteria. There are plenty of top 10 lists around. It’s time to reveal the worst.