AMA to Draft Mobile Health App Best Practices


The mobile health application industry continues to grow in the US, even though most of the apps aren't clinically proven. Now, the American Medical Association says it will work to come up with best practices for medical app developers.


As more and more Americans purchase smartphones, more and more Americans are using medical smartphone applications to track their health, remind themselves to take medications, or research medical conditions.

That trend is clear. What is far less clear is whether those apps will actually improve health, and if so, which types of apps are most effective.

On Monday, the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates took steps to help illuminate those issues, passing a resolution calling for the creation of “best practices” for mobile medical app developers.

As a result of the resolution’s passage, the AMA said it will monitor market developments, engage with stakeholders, and work to educate physicians about mobile health apps.

During floor debate on the matter, the question wasn’t so much whether the AMA needed to engage in the “mhealth” movement. Rather, the delegates debated whether the AMA had enough information to make an impact on a highly technical, rapidly evolving industry. Some argued the matter ought to be referred to committee.

John Abenstein, MD, MSEE, part of the Minnesota delegation, summed up the concerns of many.

“To be blunt, this is very complicated,” he said.

Others, however, argued that while the technology is rapidly changing, the “best practices” won’t. They also said the association’s existing policy on medical apps was very general in nature, and not sufficient to govern what has become a booming industry.

The mobile medical app market is expected to reach nearly $15 billion this year. A November 2014 study by PwC found half of patients would be comfortable using a smartphone app as an examination tool at home, rather than driving in to see a physician in her or his office. Fully two-thirds of patients with a smartphone app on their phone use the application at least once per week, according to the study.

While the delegates ultimately agreed that the AMA should put out best practices, don’t expect them to start issuing “seals of approval” for mobile apps anytime soon. After a couple of delegates brought up that possibility on the floor of the meeting, another delegate came to the microphone to ask that members refrain from even uttering the phrase “seal of approval.” The remark earned loud applause from the audience.

The comment was a not-so-subtle allusion to an experiment the AMA made in the late 1990s. In 1997, the association announced a deal to put an “AMA Seal of Approval” on products made by Sunbeam Corp., including blood pressure monitors and humidifiers.

The move was instantly controversial, prompting the AMA to quickly back out of the deal.

While a seal of approval is likely not in the AMA’s future, the resolution on Monday means the association will likely take a greater role in monitoring medical apps and advocating for clinically proven systems. A committee report on the resolution says it is important that physicians themselves, not just the AMA, keep a close eye on developments within the mhealth industry.

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