What to know before downloading a health app

There seems to be an app for everything these days — from calorie counters and meal planners, to migraine relief apps and bowel movement logging tools.

When it comes to tracking your fitness or turning to your smartphone for a health diagnosis, however, it’s best to be cautious about the personal information you share and what you decide to take as sound advice.

“Unfortunately, most of the apps that are available in the App Store or Google Play are developed by commercial people who are not researchers. This means they often lack the scientific understanding on weight loss,” says Accredited Practising Dietitian, Anika Rouf.

So, what should you consider before downloading a health or fitness app?

“If an app has some sort of certification, or it’s regulated by a health organisation or a government or some health agency, then it’s probably something you can trust,” says Omar Mubin, Senior Lecturer in Human-centred Computing and Human-computer Interaction at Western Sydney University. “Check the reviews, the ratings, and what other people think — that usually tells us a lot about whether the app is doing its job.”

Where does my information go?
In the age of data sharing, the security and privacy of the information that is collected by applications can cause concern, especially when it comes to logging sensitive health information.

One study found that more than 70 per cent of smartphone apps share personal data with third-party tracking companies. While these apps rely on third-party providers for crash and bug reporting, and analytics, they can also be used to monetise apps through ad integration and user tracking.

Mubin suggests reading the privacy policy of applications to determine whether they clearly outline how user information is stored and who has access to that information. “This goes back to credibility: if it comes from a reputable source, if they have secured layers, if they let the user know what data is being stored and how it’s being stored,” he says.

A push for accuracy
Turning to Google for a diagnosis of your medical symptoms is all too common nowadays, and with apps offering such information in innovative ways, creates issues of accuracy and reliability. While the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration provides a regulatory framework for mobile software, there is a grey area around whether certain apps pose an actual risk to users.

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Asking your health professional for app recommendations is a great way to find one that's right for you

A study which looked at smartphone apps that measure user’s heart rate found that all of the four apps tested delivered substantial discrepancies in accuracy, and two out of the four apps tested had a tendency to underestimate higher heart rates. There has also been evidence where popular pedometer apps incorrectly reported the number of steps travelled. Even a team of researchers from Europe and the UK claim that there isn't any scientific research to support the effectiveness of weight loss apps.

“The technology needs to go hand-in-hand with the medical professional and the medical experts, so they cannot just rely on one or the other,” says Mubin. “I cannot stress enough the regulation and the certification that needs to be there because we don’t want users to get a false sense of security.”

Identifying trustworthy and useful apps may involve your own trial and error, especially when app developers can sacrifice quality or safety for added functionality.

“It depends on the user to make that judgement and not be in a situation where they’re fully reliant on these apps but to have some sort of intermediate judgement on whether what the app is suggesting makes sense, and if they should follow it and to what extent,” says Mubin.

Dietitian Anika Rouf suggests using apps in conjunction with health professionals and, where possible, choosing apps from Australian sources. “There’s an Australian app called Food Switch, where you basically go to the store, get out your phone, and you scan the barcode. It then tells you what the food is like, whether that product is healthy, or if there are any better alternatives to that product. So, apps like that are pretty good to give [consumers] information.”

The benefits
You might be thinking twice about what app you download next, however, research shows interactive apps can promote healthier lifestyles and inspire changes in user behaviour. The rising popularity of fitness trackers, such as Fitbit, and the integration of the Health app on the iPhone indicates the desire people have to become more involved in their own health.

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The iOS Health app can aid users in reaching their health goals

“Apps are great because they can be motivating while you’re on your own. You’re only going to see your health professional every couple of weeks or every few months, so when you’re on your own, it’s great to have that bit of motivation — and you can share the progress with your friends on social media,” says Rouf.

With over 325,000 mobile health apps available on major app stores, it’s not hard to see why you wouldn’t turn to an app to help make your fitness routine less boring, to add reminders, or to take up brain training exercises. The possibilities seem endless, but it’s all about making it a healthy app-etite.

What are your thoughts on accuracy and privacy when it comes to health and fitness apps?

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Image credit: Integrated Change (CC BY 2.0), Sitthiphong / Shutterstock.com.