Have you turned to a mobile app to manage or improve your health?
|James Bullen| Apps that claim to treat everything from pimples to depression appeal to the anxiety many of us harbour about our health.
But how trustworthy are they, and what’s the evidence behind their effectiveness?
Can your smartphone track your mental health?
Associate Professor Carol Maher, a researcher in mobile health apps from the University of South Australia, says there are a few basic principles people can follow when choosing which health app to download.
Health apps that use your smartphone to journal or monitor progress over time are probably the least worrisome, she says.
These apps can be useful because they make it easier to communicate problems with your doctor; often they allow you to record photos or documentation you can take to an appointment for instance.
But you should be wary of an app if it’s claiming to use the phone as a medical device, Professor Maher says.
“It’s one thing if it’s a device that plugs into the phone — like there now are some approved glucose monitors. Those devices, so long as they’re reputable, are fine,” she said.
There is also an app with a plug-in accessory that can produce a simplified ECG or heart rhythm trace that is still detailed enough to diagnose abnormal heart rhythms, for instance.
But several years ago, thousands of copies of apps that claimed to zap pimples using the light of a phone were sold, before they were pulled from stores.
Other apps have claimed to treat seasonal affective disorder by exposing the user to the phone’s flashlight, despite little evidence a phone’s light can provide effective treatment.
“It’s apps like that [to be wary of], that generally have no evidence they work,” Professor Maher said.
What about other types of app? We took a look at four of the most common varieties on app stores.