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Study: Cancer-Focused mHealth Apps not Useful or Safe

January 2, 2014
by Gabriel Perna
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A recent study by researchers at the University Health Network in Toronto found that consumer-based, cancer-focused mobile applications are effectively not useful nor are they safe.

The researchers wanted to look at whether these cancer-focused apps were effective or usable, and conducted a systematic review of the official application stores for the four major smartphone platforms: iPhone, Android, Nokia, and BlackBerry. They included apps that focused on cancer and available for use by the general public, reviewing 295 in total.

The researchers found that most apps targeted breast cancer (46.8%, 138/295) or cancer in general (28.5 percent or 84/295). The predominant purpose was to raise awareness about cancer (32.2 percent or 95/295) or to provide educational information about cancer (26.4 percent or 78/295). Others supported fundraising efforts (12.9 percent or 38/295), assist in early detection (11.5 percent or 34/295), promote a charitable organization (10.2 percent, 30/295),  and disease management (3.7 percent, 11/295).

One problem, according to the researchers, was that only three apps used social networking capabilities. Only three they found asked users to exchange information and support with others. “Two of these apps enabled users to post questions and responses to other users of the app in the form of a mobile community of support, and the third consisted of a book of survivors’ experiences with the disease,” the researchers wrote.

In determining if the apps were safe for use, the researchers also found regulatory issues with the apps and their consumption. According to the researchers, “Future efforts should focus on improving and consolidating the evidence base into a whitelist for public consumption.” They noted there is no consumer-based information that would report standards for app store descriptions, and a set of criteria to aid consumers in selecting health apps.

The findings recently appeared in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

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