As we hurdle headlong into the new world of wired health care, it’s clear that there is a lot more going on with the addition of smartphones and tablets than simply a newer, more mobile medium. For better or worse, the new devices are changing the way patients and physicians communicate in ways that older technologies never accomplished.

Freed from the minor nuisance of sitting down at a computer and searching for what might turn out to be questionable medical information, patients with multifunctional mobile devices are downloading medically based apps at an astonishing pace. By 2015, 500 million smartphone users are expected to be using medical apps, according to Research2Guidance, a global mobile research group. There’s little reason to believe that the accuracy of what they’re accessing is different from what’s long been available online.

A letter this month in the journal  Patient Education and Counseling highlights the challenge patients face in assessing the reliability of information from medical apps: “Patients ... have a twofold vulnerability, with their lack of formal medical education compounded by a predisposition to anxiety regarding their health, suggested by their use of medical apps in the first instance.”1 The author cites a recent study of apps in the field of microbiology that reported that “only 34 percent of the commercially available programs examined had obvious supervision of a medical expert in their development.”

It will be no great comfort to know that the task of harnessing the burgeoning medical apps industry falls to the FDA, the same agency regularly blamed by the medical device industry for driving innovation overseas. Kaiser Health News recently reported that the FDA “began regulating a handful of medical apps last year and released a first draft of guidelines requiring mobile apps developers making medical claims to apply for FDA approval. The final regulations have not yet been released, but some developers have complained that the approval process will be too slow.”

Other regulatory efforts are under way, such as the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, which establishes a commission of several government agencies to come up with a proposed strategy for regulating mobile health apps. In predictably glacial fashion, the commission’s report is not due for another 16 months.

In the meantime, caveat app-tor.

1. Hogan N, Kerin M. Smart phone apps: Smart patients, steer clear. Patient Education and Counseling 2012;89:360-361.