When the iTunes Store began offering apps that used cell phone light to cure acne, federal investigators knew that hucksters had found a new spot in cyberspace.
“We realized this could be a medium for mischief,” said James Prunty, a Federal Trade Commission attorney who helped shut down two acne apps last year. They were the government’s only cases against health app developers.
Since then, the Food and Drug Administration has been mired in a debate over how to oversee these new high-tech products and government officials have not pursued any other app developers for making medically dubious claims.
Now, both the iTunes store and Google Play store for Android users are riddled with health apps that experts say do not work and in some cases could even endanger people.
These apps offer quick fixes for everything from flabby abs to alcoholism, and they promise relief from pain, stress, stuttering, and even ringing in the ears. Many of these apps do not follow established medical guidelines, and few have been tested through the sort of clinical research that is standard for less new-fangled treatments sold by other means, a probe by The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) has found.
While some are free, thousands must be purchased, at prices ranging from 69 cents to $999. Nearly 247 million mobile phone users worldwide are expected to download health apps in 2012, according to Research2Guidance, a global market research firm.
In an examination of 1,500 health apps that cost money and have been available since June 2011, the center found that more than one out of five claims to treat or cure medical problems — exactly the sorts of apps that FDA-proposed guidelines suggest need regulation. Of the 331 therapeutic apps, nearly 43 percent relied on cell phone sound for treatments. Another dozen used the light of the cell phone, and two others used phone vibrations. Scientists say none of these methods could possibly work for the conditions in question.