Doctor vs. App

Our constant companion - the smartphone - counts steps, calculates the calorie consumption, measures blood pressure and reminds us to take our medication. Health apps are on the rise and even come pre-installed on the popular iPhone. A search on health and medicine in your app store would display over 100,000 results.
This raises the question: Can my phone now replace a visit to the doctor?

Clearly, no.
At best, apps can detect gross abnormalities, however this also applies vice versa. On the one hand, a suspected diagnosis could lead to the patient panicking. On the other hand, relying on a potential positive diagnosis by the medical app could, in a worst case scenario, pose a serious health risk. A reliable and definitive diagnosis can and may only be made by a physician.

Example: skin cancer screening. There is a diagnostic app that lets you take photos of your moles with a smartphone and then evaluates these for the likelihood of benignancy or malignancy. An American study however, proved these results to be faulty. The app with the supposedly best image recognition software classified a third of dangerous melanomas as harmless - a life-threatening misdiagnosis!


Some apps bear potential.
Yet, there are also positive examples out there too: Applications relating to the documentation of your health status - that are neither of diagnostic nature nor suggest therapies - are in some cases considered useful because they have the potential to educate the patient to have more self-control. The high demand for health-apps or fitness tracking wristbands, so-called wearables, evidently shows that there is a growing tendency in our culture to take our health into our own hands. This technology helps strengthen the self-management of those people who take an active interest in their own body - calculating calories, monitoring blood glucose levels or keeping a migraine diary. Relevant data and documentation can quickly and easily be acquired, helpful to both patient and doctor. However, a residual risk remains suggests Dr. Jan Stritzke, specialist in internal medicine and cardiology and deputy medical director at Lanserhof Tegernsee: "In general, these applications can raise awareness of our own resources and health. The generated data isn’t 100 percent reliable though and in this case I would say trust is good, control is better."

There is a lack of quality.
Legitimate health apps do indeed exist. But how to distinguish between the good and the bad ones?

- Seal of approval
Theoretically anyone can create an app, however the provisions and requirements for genuine medical devices are high. Few mobile applications meet the minimum standards for medical devices and products. Recognised seals of approval, such as the CE marking, are usually trustworthy.

- Provider
If the provider identifies himself e.g. with a link to his website and/or contact details, this can be seen as a good sign.

- Sources
It is best to steer clear of apps where the provider does not disclose where they received their information from.

- Data protection
Personal, health-related data should be protected. A missing privacy policy or ambiguity with regards to what happens to the entrusted data should have you looking for alternatives.

So what does this mean? One should not play around with one’s health. The more transparent and comprehensive the app is regarding content, use, reliability, resources and data, the more trustworthy the health app can be considered. These apps may be useful for logging of health data, however, interpretation and treatment must continue left to face-to-face consultations with a doctor.