Australia is arguably one of the world’s most computer literate countries, as well as one of the most mobile, in terms of Internet access. As such, it’s no wonder that medical apps for smartphones and tablets have been gaining popularity among users down under. Most of them are free of charge or cost very little and they provide immediate access to medical databases, filled with tips, recommendation and advice. In theory, their existence is beneficial, as they can potentially improve conditions in emergency situations, as well as educate users to be more health conscious. In reality, however, a recent review of such apps, undertaken by the Australian Medical Association, says they should be much more closely regulated by the competent bodies.
In a late-May statement made by the president of the Australian Medical Association, Steve Hambleton, he expressed the need for a review process that would inform users of the accuracy of the information provided by said apps. On the one hand, Hambleton stated that the providers of the apps, Apple and Google, respectively, should be made part of the “responsibility chain” for endorsing the apps. On the other, however, he conceded that such an approach would most likely clash with the two companies’ respective business models. His proposal is for an aggregator app, to endorse or veto the quality of any medical applications.
Google does indeed strive to make quality content its top priority, yet this in itself is not sufficiently reassuring, when it comes to medical conditions. Self-education via health apps is a laudable initiative, but without the review of an independent third party, these applications simply cannot be trusted with the well-being of their users. Before attempting to self-diagnose or understand the effects of a specific therapy, users are encouraged to visit their general practitioner. Those who have private health insurance, for instance, can even come to learn that their policy covers more than just consultations with their GP. They can benefit from extra services coverage, which often includes therapy and special treatments, as well as rebates for over-the-counter medication – a more reassuring option than any medical app available on the virtual market.
Through this app reviewing initiative, Australia joins the ranks of Great Britain, whose National Health Service recently took a similar stand against health-themed apps. British officials have expressed worries regarding their clinical safety, as well as with their standards for the privacy of patients. Britain has already taken active measures to regulate the market, by launching the NHS Choices Health Apps Library in March. This site only lists approved apps and is geared both at professionals, as well as at patients. But while the UK’s NHS has the capacity to review apps, the situation in Australia is somewhat more complicated – the Therapeutic Goods Administration can approve devices used in therapy or the diagnosis process. It is not yet clear, however, if the TGA’s authority also extends over health apps and more generic devices used for ‘wellness purposes’.
On a global level, the current value of the health app market has been estimated at $225 million and its potential for development is explosive, with an estimated growth value of $920 million until 2016. Australia is also a fertile mobile market, with 18 per cent of households owning a tablet in 2012, with an estimated increase up to 39 per cent by 2013. Statistics for May 2012 say that 48 per cent of Australians aged 16 and up own smartphones and 71 per cent of Australians can go online via their phones. The average rate for downloaded apps was 28 for the same period of time, with 10 of them being used over the past month. Given the amplitude of the market, it almost goes without saying that health apps require more monitoring.