Mobile health, medical apps can be a boon, but beware

McClatchy Washington BureauAugust 29, 2013 

WASHINGTON — Smartphones and tablets are go-to gadgets to count calories, document daily jogs, measure heart rates and record sleep patterns. Some applications now even analyze blood sugar levels, track fertility or monitor moods for signs of depression.

Inexpensive and easy to use, mobile medical apps are also booming business: more than 97,000 varieties are available. By 2017, the mobile industry tracker Research2Guidance predicts, the market will grow to $26 billion. By then, the firm estimates, half the world's smartphone users will have downloaded health apps.

The technology could revolutionize health care by encouraging consumers to be more involved in their own fitness and by making medical technology more ubiquitous, portable and cheap. Increasingly, it could bring high-tech help to populations with little access to physician care.

But not all apps deliver the medical miracles they promise. And most aren't subject to federal laws that safeguard medical information. So consumers need to be wary.

"People who are using these health and fitness devices ... record a tremendous amount of truthful and very sensitive information about their bodies and behaviors with companies that they know very little about," said Heather Patterson, a postdoctoral scholar at New York University's Information Law Institute.

Consumers willingly log everything from diet to sexual activity to tap all the features an app offers, she said.

"They want to get accurate feedback about their sleep quality and the exercise they're getting and make a decision about that muffin they're thinking about eating," Patterson said.

They may not realize how the companies that collect that information are using it or know whether it's stored securely, Patterson said.

"They trust the companies to keep their information secure," she said, "but it's potentially problematic because this is legally an unregulated space."

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which Congress passed in 1996, limits who can look at and receive your medical information. That means doctors, insurers and pharmacies must keep your records confidential, unless you explicitly give them permission to share them. The developers of health apps don't necessarily have the same obligation.

A study published in July found that many medical apps don't encrypt the sensitive or embarrassing data that consumers input about their health.

Apps frequently share that data with advertisers and other third parties without users' knowledge. Of the free apps reviewed in the study, less than half posted privacy policies, and only half of those that did described the apps' technical processes accurately.

"In most cases the apps captured personal data and transmitted it to third parties in a way that was not disclosed in the privacy policy," said Beth Givens, the director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, the consumer advocacy organization that conducted the study.

Often data was sent unencrypted, Givens said. One app shared users' locations and other personal information with 10 other companies within three seconds of being turned on, she said.

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