According to Medical News Today, nearly 20 percent of all smartphone users have one or more health apps installed on their mobile device. Loosely translated, this means 500 million people worldwide use a smartphone app to track or manage their health on a regular basis.
Diet and exercise apps, such as free calorie counters and fitness trackers, are currently the number one choice among health-conscious users. But other wellness apps are quickly gaining popularity, including those that monitor blood pressure, track quality of sleep, and even claim to detect epilepsy.
While the mainstream presence of health apps is indisputable, particularly with regard to corporate wellness, their benefits remain controversial.
For example, a recent study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), examined the accuracy of four different health apps that claim to detect skin cancer. Researchers submitted 188 photos of skin lesions to each one of the apps for analysis.
Prior to submitting the photos, researchers determined 60 of the lesions were cancerous and 128 were benign, or non-cancerous. At the conclusion of the study, researchers discovered the most accurate app still misdiagnosed 18 of the 60 cancerous lesions, labeling them "low risk" and unlikely to be skin cancer.
Even though consumers are informed the apps are designed for educational purposes only and are not meant to take the place of medical care, UPMC researchers and other members of the medical community are still troubled by the results of the study.
"Releasing a tool to the public requires some thought as to how it could be misused. This potential is of particular concern in times of economic hardship, when uninsured and even insured patients, deterred by the cost of co-payments for medical visits, may turn to these applications as alternatives to physician evaluation," said Dr. Darrell Rigel, of the NYU Langone Medical Center.
Still, others believe health apps have had a positive impact on the medical community and offer great benefits to both patients and the providers who care for them. In addition to monitoring one's health, many apps bridge the communication gap between patients and doctors by collecting pertinent health information and sending it directly to one's physician for analysis.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of downloadable health apps will continue to be questioned until more research is completed, yet their popularity will remain.