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Beware of diagnoses by medical apps, doctor warns

While medical apps for smartphones are often useful, and the range is rapidly growing, those that are diagnostic or prescriptive should be avoided, a German doctor has warned.

”There are simply too many possible sources of error,” said Urs-Vito Albrecht.

”A hearing test with a smartphone depends on the quality of the headphones, and evaluating the colour scale of a urine testing strip depends on the quality of the smartphone camera.

”And I wouldn’t rely on an alcohol breath test in which an adapter is plugged onto the phone. The police have got better devices.”

The doctor heads MedAppLab, a unit of the Institute for Medical Informatics where he is deputy director at Hanover Medical School.

An especially egregious example of an error-prone medical app, Albrecht said, is the type for early detection of melanoma.

”High-risk patients regularly see a doctor for skin cancer screening, and the diagnosis is made visually,” he said. ”So it’s easy to think there’s suitable image recognition software. You photograph or film a mole, and an algorithm calculates the probability of it being benign or malignant.

”A study showed that even the app with supposedly the best recognition rate gave false negative results in nearly a third of the test instances.”

The usefulness and trustworthiness of health-care application software for smartphones varies greatly, according to Albrecht, who said the software could be divided into ”medical apps” and ”health apps.”

The former, which in Germany are regulated, are for example apps that measure body temperature, blood pressure or blood-sugar levels with the help of an adapter. The latter are unregulated and include apps providing information on medicines, and lifestyle apps such as pedometers and fitness programmes.

”Apps explaining medical content have low damage potential,” Albrecht said. ”Patient diaries that help to document an illness and the progress of therapy, or to remind you to take your medicine, can also be useful.”

The same can be said about apps encouraging health-conscious behaviour, such as workout schedules, he added.

In assessing the trustworthiness of an app, ”seals of approval, transparency and common sense help,” Albrecht remarked.

As an example of a state seal of approval, he cited the CE marking, which certifies that the product was assessed before being placed on the market and meets European Union safety, health and environmental protection requirements.

To assess one of the many available fitness apps, Albrecht suggested reading the instructional page provided by the maker or reviewing seals of approval granted by initiatives or companies.

According to Germany’s technology industry association Bitkom, there were some 15,000 health-care sector apps on the market in 2011, Albrecht said. (dpa)