Free Apps Might Carry Huge Price Tag

Ed Rabinowitz

The old saying that there's no such thing as a free lunch applies even to so-called free apps. As a physician you should know what you're getting yourself into when you use them and share information.

By now you’re well familiar with the slogan, “There’s an app for that.” Downloadable, free apps for your smart phone or tablet device do everything from helping find the nearest Chinese restaurant to providing real-time stock quotes before, during and after market hours.

But are these apps doing more than we realize? Is there really a hidden cost for these “free” apps?

Patrick Gray, president of Prevoyance Group, a business strategy consulting company near Charlotte, N.C., says that the old saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch applies even to these so-called free apps. He speculates that approximately 75% of these free apps are collecting and disseminating data about you every time you use them.

“I think there are people who are tinkerers, kind of sitting in their garage writing free apps out of the kindness of their hearts,” Gray says. “But [any app] that is polished and has a very nice, commercial feel to it but is free, is probably gathering your data, aggregating it, and selling it to marketing organizations.”

Did anyone say 1984?

Moshe Lewis, MD, a pain management specialist, is referred to as the “Digital Doctor” due to his use of social media to establish better doctor-patient relationships. He says that these apps really are not free when it comes to the privacy of information.

“The fact is that information is always being collected,” says Lewis, noting that Amazon absorbs information like a wet sponge. “I think the challenge is that we almost have to stay off the Internet to avoid it.”

However, the best site at gathering information may be Google, according to Gray, who finds Gmail “the spookiest of all.” Google’s email service lifts and saves keywords from email. For example, if you send an email to someone discussing the fact that you’re planning a vacation to Florida, you’ll soon see ads popping up on your screen promoting Florida vacations and airfare.

“It’s actually delving into your correspondence and using that information to market to you,” he says.

And physicians need to be aware of that, says Gray. They should realize that if they’re using an app to write or chart patient prescriptions, that information is likely being monitored.

“If you’re a gastroenterologist, presumably there’s some organization that would like to know [what you’re prescribing] and target certain products to you based on that information,” he says.

Care to play along?

Of course, there are some benefits to be had if you don’t mind sharing some personal information. According to an article in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance (“How to Fight Privacy Pirates,” 12/2011), you can actually earn some rewards, either in the form of cash or frequent flyer miles, by openly allowing companies to monitor your online habits. Of course, it’s still important to make certain you’ve installed up-to-date security software.

Gathering information for marketing purposes isn't exactly new; however, the process and the abilities of the companies have gotten more sophisticated.

“It’s an awareness thing," Gray says. "There’s sort of this perspective that when you’re sitting at your computer in your office and the door is closed, you have this sense of physical privacy; that there’s no one snooping over your shoulder. But anything you do online, all that stuff is being recorded somewhere, and potentially being sold to marketers.”

Even if you do decide to “play along,” Lewis cautions that there are some fundamental rules to follow. As a physician, he cautions against giving out any personal phone numbers, as well as listing a personal address on any kind of website that could somehow be linked back to patients.

“There are organizations that provide secure communication links for docs who want to be able to email their patients, and vice versa,” says Lewis, in particular noting that Relay Health is a web-based organization that helps physicians control their online presence in terms of interacting with patients. “The fear is that someone will find a financial way to benefit off the information you are making too public.”

Gray echoes those thoughts, reminding physicians to be careful what they write online, even if they think the group is only for other physicians. If you write something about a patient, that information is online now and could even find its way back to that patient.

He says it’s a reasonably safe assumption, when using any downloaded app, to assume that what you’re doing is being monitored, aggregated, and sold to marketers.

“Don’t say anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t want to say to your mom,” Gray says.

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