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Surprising Science

Are Health Apps Electronic Snake Oil?

What’s the Latest Development?

How effective can a smartphone app really be at improving your health? That depends, but some app producers are making claims so outlandish that regulators say a stronger check is needed against these modern-day sellers of snake oil. “Virtually any app that claims it will cure someone of a disease, condition or mental health condition is bogus,” says John Grohol, an expert in online health technology, pointing out that the vast majority of apps have not been scientifically tested. “Developers are just preying on people’s vulnerabilities.”

What’s the Big Idea?

The claims made by exploitative apps range from curing acne with different colored lights to augmenting women’s breast size by listening to the sound of a crying baby. While the FDA is at work writing health app regulations, some private organizations, like Misra’s iMedicalApps and Happtique, evaluate medical apps for safety and effectiveness. Professionals say there are a host of very helpful apps, such as those intended for doctors and hospitals, that are helping to revolutionize medical care: Lose It measures weight loss, Azumio measures heart rates and iTriage locates hospitals with the shortest emergency room wait times.

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