Over 100,000 medical and health apps for mobile digital devices have now been listed in the Apple App Store and Google Play. They represent diverse opportunities for lay people to access medical information and track their body functions and medical conditions. As yet, however, few critical social researchers have sought to analyse these apps.
In a study I did with Annemarie Jutel we undertook a sociological analysis of medical diagnosis apps, and two articles have now been published from the study. Annemarie is a sociology of diagnosis expert and we were interested in investigating how these apps represented the process of diagnosis. We drew on the perspective that apps are sociocultural artefacts that draw on and reproduce tacit norms and assumptions. We argue that from a sociological perspective, digital devices such as health and medical apps have significant implications for the ways in which the human body is understood, visualised and treated by medical practitioners and lay people alike, for the doctor-patient relationship and the practice of medicine.
In one article, published in Social Science & Medicine, we focused on self-diagnosis apps directed at lay people. We undertook a search using the terms ‘medical diagnosis’ and ‘symptom checker’ for apps that were available for download to smartphones in mid-April 2014 in the Apple App Store and Google Play. We found 35 self-diagnosis apps that claimed to diagnose across a range of conditions (we didn’t include apps directed at diagnosis of single conditions). Some have been downloaded by tens or hundreds of thousands, and the case of WebMD and iTriage Health, millions of smartphone owners.
Our analysis suggests that these apps inhabit a contested and ambiguous site of meaning and practice. The very existence of self-diagnosis apps speaks to several important dimensions of contemporary patienthood and healthcare in the context of a rapidly developing ecosystem of digital health technologies. They also participate in the quest for patient ‘engagement’ and ‘empowerment’ that is a hallmark of digital health rhetoric (or what I call ‘digital patient engagement’).
Self-diagnosis apps, like other technologies designed to give lay people the opportunity to monitor their bodies and their health states and engage with the discourses of healthism and control that pervade contemporary medicine We found that app developers combined claims to medical expertise in conjunction with appeals to algorithmic authority to promote their apps to potential users. While the developers also used appeals to patient engagement as part of their promotional efforts, these were undermined by routine disclaimers that users should seek medical advice to effect a diagnosis. While the cautions that are offered on the apps that they are for ‘entertainment purposes only’ and not designed to ‘replace a diagnosis from a medical professional’ may be added for legal reasons, they detract from the authority that the app may offer and indeed call into question why anyone should use it.
In our other article, published in the new journal Diagnosis, we directed attention at diagnosis apps that are designed for the use of medical practitioners as well as lay people. We analysed 176 such apps that we found in Google Play and the Apple App Store in December 2013. While 36 of these were directed at lay people, the remainder were for medical practitioners. The Diagnosis article mainly concentrates on the latter, given that our other article was about the self-diagnosis apps for lay people.
Our research suggests that these apps should be used with great caution by both lay people and practitioners. The lack of verifiable information provided about the evidence or expertise used to develop these apps is of major concern. The apps are of very variable quality, ranging from those that appear to have the support and input of distinguished medical experts, specialty groups or medical societies to those that offer little or nothing to support their knowledge claims. While at one end of the spectrum we can see apps as a delivery system for information which has been subject to the conventional forms of academic review, at the other extreme, we see apps developed by entrepreneurs with interests in many topics outside medicine, with little input from medical sources, or with inadequate information to ascertain what the sources might be. The lack of information provided by many app developers also raises questions about how users can determine the presence of conflicts of interest and commercial interests that might determine content.