How I helped to MHRA to police Health Apps
If you Googled ‘skin cancer’ two weeks ago, you may have found a health app, Mole Detective, on Google Play that promises to ‘help to detect skin cancer earlier’.
It’s one of more than 100,000 health apps that can be downloaded in this country either on Google Play or iTunes. Many of these are brilliant and empowering. And the Department of Health is rightly encouraging their role in helping people stay healthy, manage chronic illness and possibly have a role in diagnosis.
However, there’s a problem. Some health apps are of poor or very poor quality. Others are downright misleading. And when they are medical (rather than counting calories or the like) – that’s a real problem.
That’s the case with Mole Detective. Downloading it two weeks ago, you’d have been blissfully unaware that its manufacturers have been fined by the US Federal Trade Commission for misleading marketing. Because mole-checking apps like Mole Detective don’t help to detect skin cancer earlier. Or at least they miss two out three melanomas according to a 2013 study.
And with skin lesions spreading to other organs in a matter of months, the potential for giving someone a false sense of security can be fatal.
There are useful websites that have started to sort out the good, the bad and the ugly, notably www.apps.nhs.uk and www.myhealthapps.net. But anyone can try to flog a health app at the moment – no matter what medical claims it makes. The only protection for consumers is when – and if – the responsible body, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, takes action.
The good news is that try Googling skin cancer today and Mole Detective ain’t there. It’s no longer downloadable. It’s disappeared.
What happened in between, I suggest, is that the DH read my piece* in Daily Mail Good Health on March 17 – and pressure was applied to get something down. I’ve been told that the app was taken down because ‘MHRA has done its first bit of positive policing of health – hopefully saving a life or two’. So as medical journalists committed to patient safety, let’s be aware that health apps are a great innovation that need to be evidence-based in the same way as medicines do. We should check out claims made in the release of the latest fab new app before writing about it and do what we can to ensure that MHRA is doing its job.
It’s also good to be aware that just occasionally, our work really does make a difference. Perhaps the MJA website is a place to record these modest achievements