10:16pm Monday 16 October 2017

Researchers warn against using smartphone apps to cure pain

There are nearly 6,000 smartphone downloadable applications (‘apps’) for health-related issues but there is currently no regulatory body evaluating and approving their release making them potentially misleading to the consumer.

The researchers at the University’s Centre for Pain Research reviewed the commercial descriptions of apps targeting the broad health issue of pain, selecting those aimed at consumers rather than healthcare professionals.

They looked at 111 apps from the official application stores for five major smartphone platforms: iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Nokia/Symbian, and Windows Mobile. Download costs varied, although the majority were priced around £1.19.

Of the apps reviewed, 85.6 per cent reported no involvement from a healthcare professional, either directly as the app creator or indirectly as a source of information or evaluation of app content.

Of the specified pain types, headache and migraine were the most commonly targeted, with back pain the second most frequently reported while a few focused on chronic pain and specific long-term health conditions.

The apps content included pain reduction techniques, such as information on acupuncture, acupressure tutorials, and headache prevention. 

Although the majority were text-based, several applications also included images, video and/or animations to illustrate content. Around a quarter of apps contained a diary or journal tracking facility.

Professor Chris Eccleston from the Centre for Pain Research said: “Modern technology is critically changing the definition of a medical device and what requires medical regulation. Current devices and pharmaceutical regulatory bodies are struggling to keep up with developments in new media and healthcare delivery. The issue of regulation is complex and a balance between regulating technology to ensure effective healthcare and the need to avoid the obstruction of innovation through unnecessary caution is a difficult one to strike – an issue certainly not limited to smartphone applications.

“In a population often desperate for a solution to distressing and debilitating pain conditions, there is considerable risk of individuals being mis-sold, misled, and cynically overpromised hope. The next generation of apps will need to emerge in a regulated environment that is able to balance the importance of evidence-based clinical content and expert support without obstructing the progress that mobile healthcare technologies may provide.”

The full paper was published in the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare.


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