Health apps: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In the age of health mania, billions of health apps are downloaded every year. Some of these make sense, most of them are merely for personal entertainment, but some are actually dangerous to health. Either way, these are just the beginning.

Beat Hochuli

Do you suffer from toothache? Or sleepiness? Or even insomnia? Do you feel stressed or have facial skin impurities? Whatever is plaguing, limiting and bothering you – with the Shiatsu massage app «Asian Health», you can easily banish the problem. The program gives you suitable acupressure/acupuncture points for any ailment – at any time and anywhere. Then all you have to do is apply pressure in the right way, or have someone do it for you.


Big, big business...

So far, so good – or even bad. More than 100,000 of what are known as health-promoting mobile programs are now available in the common app stores. And, according to a study by market researcher Global Information, such apps are likely to generate revenues of 26 billion dollars worldwide in two years. This is no trifling matter. This is big business – for pharmaceuticals companies, for gadget manufacturers – and of course for the app producers themselves. And what is supposed to be bad about this? After all, it’s for our most precious asset, our health!

IIn five or six years, almost every resident on Earth will be in a position to use mobile devices to monitor and check their entire bodies – all the way to X-ray “selfies”. 

We should always remember that practical health apps improve health care, allow the patients more individual care and also help reduce the horrendous cost overrun. There are already numerous sensible examples. Evaluations of Google queries can detect epidemics in real time, and big-data analyses of sensor data can generate diagnoses. In addition, there are matching services. For example, in Asia the app for the Blood Donors Network in the Philippines aims to ensure that accident victims and emergency patients in rural areas, in particular, receive blood as soon as possible.


...all the way to X-ray “selfies”

And this is just the beginning. In five or six years, almost every resident on Earth will be in a position to use mobile devices to monitor and check their entire bodies – all the way to X-ray “selfies”. Currently a team of engineers at the University of California in Los Angeles is working on developing a device in smartphone format that can generate X-rays. And the latest partnership to be announced between the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis and the American mobile technology specialists Qualcomm is fully in keeping with «digital health». For this purpose, the two companies have announced an investment fund in the region of one hundred million dollars.


Entertainment can be fatal

These examples show in which direction the health app trend should go – and in which it should not. App services that are linked to the health authorities, hospitals and doctors are certainly welcome.


If the app can save a trip to the doctor in simple cases, everybody benefits. However, all those mobile programs that have not been tested by health authorities or medical professionals and found to be suitable are dubious.

However, these apps currently represent the vast majority. Luckily, they are also mostly used by fitness fanatics and incorrigible hypochondriacs for entertainment during their free time. There is no remedy available for this and also no reason to object. However, it becomes fatal when someone with a serious heart disease places their trust in a «blood pressure measurement app» that shows the most varied values within a few minutes. And things become even more dangerous when people who are feeling ill self-diagnose on the basis of dubious app results – and resort to self-medicating. Many doctors have already made known what they think of such cheap, but not free, charlatan apps: «They can quickly land you in the A&E emergency room – or even directly in your grave!»

Beat Hochuli

is a freelance ICT journalist and lives in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.