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How Credible Are Health-Related Smartphone and Tablet Apps?

Choose Credible, Reliable Health and Medical Apps for Your Smartphone or Tablet

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Updated November 28, 2012

Ever since the dawn of health information on the Internet, concerned people have wondered about the credibility of the information found there. Most realize they can't believe everything they read on the web because there's plenty of bogus information out there. So how can we tell what's usable and reliable, and what isn't?

Many of us who work in patient empowerment have made lists of criteria - including a good list here at About.com Patient Empowerment. Smart patients are savvy enough to know the basic approaches, like to follow the money, or to skip sites that focus on one brand of drug, or to vet the person who writes the information to be sure they aren't some sort of shyster.

But these days it's no longer just Internet resources we need to be concerned about. Now we have applications ("apps") for smartphones and tablets and heaven-only-knows what new invention we'll see in another year. Yet, for some reason, very few people have asked about the reliability and credibility of these applications and whether or not patients should believe everything they read or learn from them.

Some history: Not surprisingly, with the advent of smartphone and tablet apps, the scammers began coming out of the woodwork, too. In 2011, the FTC went after two developers who had created apps to treat acne. In both cases, the developers claimed that the apps' emissions of specific colored, flashing lights would improve acne on skin that was exposed to those flashes. One of the developers falsely claimed that his app was based on research that had been published in a well-respected dermatology journal. The FTC shut them both down because they had no research to support their claims.

For some apps it makes little difference how accurate or reliable they are. For example, an app that tracks how many steps you take in a day as a way of measuring whether you're getting the exercise you need may be off by a few steps. No big deal.

But for other apps, it's critical they be credible, because we smartphone and tablet users rely on their information to help us with our symptoms, our treatment decisions, finding our providers and more.

Here are some guidelines for reviewing an app to be sure it can be as useful to you as you want it to be, and worth the price you may pay for it:

  1. Remember that apps are no different from any other Internet-based information, so the guidelines for finding credible health information will be almost identical.

  2. Remember, too, that anyone can create or publish anything they want in app form, with an intent to get you to conform to their way of thinking, or to make decisions that benefit them, not you.

  3. As much as possible, stay objective. Trust your intuition and the good sense your momma gave you. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The app that tells you it will help cure you of cancer is a fraud even if it sounds enticing.

  4. Apps that are offered by pharmaceutical or medical device companies will not be useful to you. They have only one purpose in creating an app; that is, to sell you what they make. There is nothing objective or comparative about that.

  5. Apps that try to diagnose you can be dangerous. For the same reasons those website symptoms checkers won't ever give you an complete and accurate answer, apps won't either. Worse yet, if they charge you for the app, you will have wasted your money.

  6. Finally, don't forget that there are many shysters out there that are only interested in taking your money. Be aware that fraud can be just as easily masqueraded in an app as it is online or anywhere else. Don't fall prey to an app that promises to sell you a drug at an extremely low price, or connects you to a doctor that isn't yours. Buyer, and app subscriber, beware.

Should you run into problems, feel as if you've been "taken," or find that dangerous information has been offered to you, you can make a complaint through the FTC. Visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

The real bottom line to assessing the credibility of any smartphone or tablet health or medical app is the same as it is for any piece of information: consider the source and follow the money.

Further, just like with any credible website you find and want to believe, discuss your findings with your doctor in a way that won't insult or frustrate him or her.

Apps can be fun! But they can be dangerous, or a lousy way to waste your money, too. Proceed with caution.

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