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article imageDangers of some health apps as HIV is misdiagnosed

By Tim Sandle     Apr 17, 2017 in Health
The case of Esther, who sells water on the side of the road in Kenya and whose smartphone misdiagnosed HIV, has featured in news media as a warning about the claims made by health apps.
As with all smartphone and tablet applications, health apps have increased in number. Some of these apps are good, written in conjunction with qualified medical professionals and they expound useful and scientifically valid advice. For example, Digital Journal recently reported on a systematic review of smartphones and health apps which showed how parents can improve health outcomes for children. This was through a combination of appropriate apps and text messages.
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Some health apps are fairly innocuous like those which collect information about the number of steps we might take. Others collect vital signs and here there have been concerns about application providers sharing user data, without consent, with medical facilities.
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Other health apps simply do not work very well. Here there have been criticisms with mental health apps in particular giving misleading advice. With this, it is not only inaccurate advice programmed into the app, it stands that for complex diagnoses apps cannot substitute the qualified human.
This also extends into medical tests. A smartphone app cannot test for a virus or pathogen. Symptoms can be entered and databases searched; however, many signs and symptoms are relatively similar and often medical professionals require blood tests. This is the case with the woman from Kenya, Esther. The BBC has reported on her case as a warning about the limitations of health apps. The app Esther downloaded claimed to diagnose whether a person had the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) simply by analyzing her fingerprint on the touch screen.
The app Esther downloaded had come from the Google play store. Information about the app, contained in the notes, showed it to be a prank. This is fine if people take the time to look and where English is a person's first language (in Kenya it's Swahili or Sheng). It is also fine if all this is covered and an app is directly downloaded; these checks and balances don't exist when an app is shared via Bluetooth.
Esther's case shows how easy it is to misinterpret something that, on face value, appears legitimate. Reviewing Esther's case, Laura de Reynal, who has studied experiences of first-time smartphone users in Kenya, has called upon Google to embed warnings on such apps.
More about health apps, Apps, Health, Smartphone
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