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Think Twice Before Buying That Health App

Think Twice Before Buying That Health AppLast week, Rochelle Sharpe from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting published an article in The Washington Post about the flimsy evidence base for most health apps you can purchase in the iTunes or Google Play Android online stores. Developers have been marketing such apps for years — most of them having no research to suggest they can do half the things they claim.

Worse yet, neither Apple nor Google appear to care. Neither company responded to Sharpe’s inquiries about why they allow apps to be sold on their storefronts that claim to treat all sorts of medical and mental health problems, without the research to back them up.

So what kinds of things can your smartphone cure or alleviate the symptoms of? You might be surprised at Sharpe’s findings.

Here’s what the non-profit New England Center for Investigative Reporting found in its investigation into health apps:

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.

One out of five. That’s just astounding.

I’m quoted in the article as well:

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.”

I first reported on this issue back in 2009, highlighting the lack of research evidence to suggest that a blue light app being marketed at the time for the iPhone could possibly work. It was being marketed as a treatment for seasonal affective disorder — a very real and debilitating disorder that can indeed be treated with a specific type of light therapy.

However, this app (and there are still apps like this available for sale in the iTunes and Google Play stores) took a research concept — being exposed to a certain wavelength of light for a set period of time each day — and turned it into a product that could be sold to unsuspecting consumers. Except that the developers ignored an important component of the research — the light needed to be of a certain brightness intensity in order for it to work. As it turns out, the iPhone and Android smartphones at the time couldn’t even produce 10 percent of the brightness needed.

That’s the insidiousness of these apps — they often take one small component of a research finding, simplify it, and put it into an app. Then they make claims about how their app is backed by research (we see this all the time, too, in “brain games” apps and websites, as well as in the nutritional supplement market).

Yes, there is some tiny amount of research on phone apps, but very little of that research is about any current app you can find in the iTunes or Google Play (for Android) stores. Developers now try and circumvent U.S. Food and Drug Administration policing by claiming the apps they market for diseases are for “entertainment purposes only.” I’m sorry, but who finds a blue light entertaining?

Unless you’re trying to increase the size of your breasts… Apparently, there’s an app for that too:

Breast Augmentation, sold on Google Play for 99 cents, attempts to capitalize on the notion that breast-feeding women have larger breasts. While lactating women’s breasts may get bigger when they fill with milk, Breast Augmentation claims that all kinds of women can get larger breasts just by listening to the sounds of a crying baby at least 20 times a day, a claim that experts say has no basis. “The tone works by stimulating the brain subliminally,” the app’s advertisement says.

A spokesman for the developer, CowKnow, said in an e-mail that despite lack of scientific proof, there have been many positive comments from users. “I suppose that effects depend on the subject, possible brain suggestion and placebo effect,” the spokesman wrote.

As a consumer, you just have to watch out for any app you find for your smartphone that claims it will cure or treat the symptoms of any disease or mental disorder. Or whose claims just don’t pass the common sense test. The legitimate apps that can actually help treat certain, specific symptoms are so rare, we can compile a list of such apps (and will do so in the future).

In the meantime, check out iMedicalApps, which “gets health-care professionals to review software applications that mainly interest physicians. Happtique, a subsidiary of the Greater New York Hospital Association, is about to launch the nation’s first app certification service, which will evaluate apps for safety and effectiveness. It will award some apps the high-tech equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”


Read the full article: Many health apps are based on flimsy science at best, and they often do not work

Think Twice Before Buying That Health App

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Think Twice Before Buying That Health App. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 17 Nov 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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