05 February 2014
This paper examines the state of the art in mobile clinical and health-related apps. A 2012 estimate puts the number of health-related apps at no fewer than 40,000, as healthcare professionals and consumers continue to express concerns about the quality of many apps, calling for some form of app regulatory control or certification to be put in place. We describe the range of apps on offer as of 2013, and then present a brief survey of evaluation studies of medical and health-related apps that have been conducted to date, covering a range of clinical disciplines and topics. Our survey includes studies that highlighted risks, negative issues and worrying deficiencies in existing apps. We discuss the concept of ‘apps as a medical device’ and the relevant regulatory controls that apply in USA and Europe, offering examples of apps that have been formally approved using these mechanisms. We describe the online Health Apps Library run by the National Health Service in England and the calls for a vetted medical and health app store. We discuss the ingredients for successful apps beyond the rather narrow definition of ‘apps as a medical device’. These ingredients cover app content quality, usability, the need to match apps to consumers’ general and health literacy levels, device connectivity standards (for apps that connect to glucometers, blood pressure monitors, etc.), as well as app security and user privacy. ‘Happtique Health App Certification Program’ (HACP), a voluntary app certification scheme, successfully captures most of these desiderata, but is solely focused on apps targeting the US market. HACP, while very welcome, is in ways reminiscent of the early days of the Web, when many “similar” quality benchmarking tools and codes of conduct for information publishers were proposed to appraise and rate online medical and health information. It is probably impossible to rate and police every app on offer today, much like in those early days of the Web, when people quickly realised the same regarding informational Web pages. The best first line of defence was, is, and will always be to educate consumers regarding the potentially harmful content of (some) apps.