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Mobile health apps are not always the best medicine, experts say

Some apps claim to be able to detect signs of skin cancer, but experts say patients should always seek the opinion of a real dermatologist. — dpa

Some apps claim to be able to detect signs of skin cancer, but experts say patients should always seek the opinion of a real dermatologist. — dpa

From video consultations to apps that diagnose diseases and give out medical advice, the rise of digital healthcare is having a profound effect on doctors and patients alike. 

While doctors can see the benefits of this technology, they also warn that there are risks. At the recent 120th congress of the German Medical Association (BAEK), digitalisation was the main theme. 

“More than 100,000 (health) applications are now available in the leading app stores, and the assortment is constantly growing,” says a BAEK study that was discussed at the congress. “But only a fraction of the programs are certified as medical products.” 

Mobile health apps for smartphones and tablet computers are especially popular with young people. And demand is rising. There’s a caveat, though. 

“Not everything that’s technically possible also makes good sense,” pointed out the BAEK’s president, Frank Ulrich Montgomery. 

One of the apps recommended by the BAEK amid the “tangle” that are currently available uses a smartphone camera to measure heart rhythm. Another treats tinnitus – a ringing or buzzing in the ears – with individually tailored music.  

Some others, while not necessarily recommendable, are relatively harmless, such as wellness apps that create personalized sleep profiles or give nutrition tips. 

Less harmless, the BAEK says, are apps that “give the illusion of being a digital personal physician.” These include apps claiming to aid the early detection of skin cancer by assessing smartphone photos of suspicious lesions or moles – without a dermatologist ever seeing either the patient or the photos. 

Following the advice of a mobile app when you’re ill instead of going to the doctor isn’t wise, the BAEK emphasizes. 

“An app can never replace a doctor – at best it can only supplement one,” Montgomery said. 

“In the jungle of offerings, the search for a reputable and reliable application is a game of chance. And the chance of hitting the mark is slim,” concludes a joint study by the Braunschweig University of Technology and the Hanover Medical School, commissioned by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Health. Dubious apps are the rule, not the exception, it says. 

What’s more, many mobile app developers are lax when it comes to data privacy, warn German consumer advisors. Users should be careful not to thoughtlessly share personal information.  

The BAEK is calling for mobile health apps to undergo quality certification. It has an ally in German health minister Hermann Groehe, who is also calling for improved quality and safety standards. 

“I can envision a federal agency testing and certifying (these apps) at some point,” Montgomery said. 

One branch of digital healthcare that the BAEK says is growing in importance is telemedicine. In other countries, it notes, the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology – online or by telephone – is more widespread. 

“We’re seeing a reassessment (in favour of telemedicine) among doctors,” remarked Norbert Butz, a BAEK telemedicine expert. 

While digital technology up to now has mostly been used in healthcare for administrative purposes, it’s now increasingly entering medical areas, Butz points out. He says most telemedicine offerings are compatible with medical law, adding that it’s important for data privacy to be maintained. 

People in rural regions lacking medical infrastructure could benefit from telemedicine, says Ulrich Clever, president of the State Chamber of Physicians of Baden-Wuerttemberg, in southern Germany. 

“It’s become difficult to get across to some patients the point of sitting around for a long time in a doctor’s surgery instead of briefly over the phone or at a computer,” he says. — dpa

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