This article appears in the January 2013 issue of Medicine on the Net.
Healthcare apps for smart phones and other mobile devices have been flooding the market since 2010 and have proliferated so rapidly that efforts are under way to create a process to evaluate and certify them.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there were 17,288 health and fitness apps on the market in mid-2012 along with 14,558 medical apps. And all those apps are being used in a vacuum with no government oversight or vetting by private companies, leaving users to rely on word-of-mouth, online reviews, or simple trial and error.
"There are hundreds of apps that really work and are completely legitimate," says Mark Anderson, CEO of healthcare IT consulting firm The AC Group. "But there are also a lot of apps manufactured by snake oil salesmen who promote them with a lot of misleading information."
Like the early days of the Internet—when dozens of new websites popped up every day—the healthcare app industry is a boomtown generating hundreds of new apps each month with most designed for use on mobile devices. According to Washington, D.C.-based eHealth Initiative, the number of smart phone apps increased 120% during the past year.
And millions of people are using them. According to research firm Research2Guidance, an estimated 247 million mobile phone users worldwide downloaded a health app in 2012 despite the fact that there's very little evidence to show how well the apps work.
"We know they [healthcare apps] hold great promise," says Jason Goldwater, vice president of programs and research for the eHealth Initiative. "But in most cases, there's not enough data on sustained success to know which ones really work."