What Can Smartphone Apps Cure?

Even the high-tech world of medical smartphone apps isn't immune to false claims and quackery.

I’m watching with interest the news that is being reported from the UN General Assembly high level meeting in New York City on non-communicable diseases. Not only have chronic diseases moved into the most prominent public health threat in the US, but they are a worldwide threat as the “globalization of unhealthy lifestyles.” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, MD, MSc, appealed to both the pharmaceutical industry and food industry to curb business practices detrimental to public health. Calls for transparency as the UN attempts to tackle these problems are also being heard.

In the past, I’ve discussed how some pretty slick smartphone apps are being used by individuals to make positive changes to their lifestyles. And, as a high school teacher recently pointed out to me, adolescents are always on the lookout for the next great app. However, while most of these applications tend to fall into the realm of monitoring and helpful advice, some have unfortunately begun to promise treatment and cures that is reminiscent of the bottles of tonic sold in the late 1800s advertised to “purify the blood” of whatever ails.

One app making the news this week is being sold as a treatment for acne. Apparently, teens can download their purported acne cure on iTunes, and thousands did (and probably still are). And acne isn’t the only condition that smartphone apps are advertised to “cure.” I’ve seen apps that claim to cure pain and even (infamously) homosexuality.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that claims like these can be dangerous. While the FDA mulls over what role it may eventually assume with respect to these issues, the FTC appears to be protecting consumer interests to some degree, but the bottom line is that smartphone health apps are largely unregulated — it is a case of buyer beware. And I have yet to find a website that has regularly reviews popular health apps and their claims for teens, parents, or pediatricians.

Do parents or adolescents seek your advice on health apps, and where do you get your information?