High "star rating" of medical apps does not necessarily reflect accuracy or value, say scientists who warn users to not trust such platforms just based on reviews.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University in the US screened 250 user reviews and comments for a once popular - but proven inaccurate - mobile app that claims to change your smartphone into a blood pressure monitor.
Their analysis found that even the presence of app disclaimers warning users not to rely on the app for medical monitoring, diagnosis or treatment effectiveness failed to uniformly dissuade people from doing so, or stop health care professionals from recommending the app.
"People tend to trust user reviews when shopping online and use them to decide which products to purchase, but that doesn't cut it for medical apps," said Timothy Plante, a former fellow at the Johns Hopkins.
"There are certain thresholds of accuracy that need to be maintained, and a five-star rating doesn't replace clinical validation studies and FDA review," said Plante, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Vermont in the US.
The researchers said that unregulated mobile health app use could give people a false sense of security, which could lead to dire health consequences.
In the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, the physicians call for medical professionals to be more sceptical of apps that do not have scientific studies backing them.
The researchers analysed 261 user ratings and reviews from the app store before the it was taken off the market for reasons that were not made public.
The average star rating of the latest version of the app was four out of five stars, and 59 per cent of the reviews assigned the app five stars. Commentary praising the accuracy of the app based on anecdotal experience comprised 42 per cent of the reviews, and 10 per cent of the reviews mention inaccuracy.
The app included a disclaimer that it should not be used as a medical device and is for "recreational" purposes only.
Yet, 24 reviews - 10 per cent - claimed to use the app for medical purposes, with 11 people using it to manage their high blood pressure treatments, one person using it to manage kidney disease and another person using it to monitor blood pressure after a heart transplant.
"The data showed that disclaimers aren't a complete solution. Consumers will continue to use these devices to manage their health care, which could be dangerous if they are substituting the app for medical care with a professional," said Seth Martin, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University.
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