Health apps: a 'dangerous market' with incredible potential

Mhari Aurora
·2-min read
Liz Ashall-Payne, CEO of ORCHA
Liz Ashall-Payne, CEO of ORCHA

The rapid advancement of technology and its infiltration into our homes and daily routines means health is becoming ever more digital.

Health apps have become more popular since the coronavirus pandemic hit, with many turning to virtual medical appointments to remedy everyday ailments.

But, with more than 365,000 health and fitness apps to choose from, it can be an overwhelming task to identify which are any good. There are also concerns around privacy, data protection and safety.

Watch: Liz Ashall-Payne explains how to spot the apps that are safe to use

Liz Ashall-Payne, CEO of the Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Apps (ORCHA), explains the issues faced by consumers

“Trust is the biggest barrier to using digital health and that trust is not unfounded,” she tells Yahoo News UK. “80% of health apps available don’t meet our regulatory requirements and there are really dangerous products on the market.

“There are products out there that claim if you put your thumb on the screen you will get a blood reading, or you can get a diagnosis of HIV. There are suicide prevention products out there that tell you the fastest way to kill yourself.”

ORCHA’s review of health apps gauges an app’s quality, from its effectiveness and whether a healthcare professional was involved in its production, to how user-friendly the app is and its data privacy policy.

ORCHA provides app libraries to the NHS in 50% of regions and has seen an 180% rise in visits to its libraries between January and May.

“It’s absolutely the way forward,” says Ashall-Payne. “People love it, people want access to healthcare when they want it. The genie is out the box.”

Logging symptoms or ordering repeat prescriptions on our smartphones has become as easy as booking a train ticket.

Although health apps erase the need to travel to see a GP, sections of society may be left behind.

“For people who aren’t able to afford smartphone devices or people who are not digitally literate we have to deal with that head on,” says Ashall-Payne. “What I am seeing is a lot of conversation about these issues but very little action.”

Pam Lowe, a senior lecturer in sociology and policy at Aston University, who specialises in reproductive health, says there is a perception that just because a product or service is tech-based somehow it has got to be an improvement.

“You’ve got to ask, what’s the motivation for tech companies?” she says. “I think a lot of it is a way to make money.

“People have to go into these things with their eyes open. Who reads the small print when you download an app?”

Lowe wants to see app stores taking more responsibility for the apps they offer and believes developers should have to prove their product is safe and user-friendly before they are available for download.