The widespread use of smartphones to collect healthcare data has been thrown into doubt by a couple of recent studies.
In some fields — such as the management of chronic diseases and mental health monitoring smartphones have enabled a greater level of patient self-control, and personalised clinical intervention. Success in one area, however, does not imply success in all – especially as smartphone health apps are often rolled out before evidence of their effectiveness has been rigorously analysed.
A major study into the use of mobile phone data as a tool for predicting clinical decisions, released in June, came to a scathing conclusion, characterising the practice as "voodoo machine learning".
The research, led by Dr Sohrob Saeb, artificial intelligence researcher at Northwestern University, Illinois, looked at methods used by doctors to validate clinical predictions made by machine learning algorithms based on smartphone data. The methods, they found, "often massively overestimate the prediction accuracy of the algorithms".
The mismatch between prediction and actuality, the team warned, could seriously harm patient health. The study is available on early release site BioRxiv, and is awaiting peer review.
Another study, published in May, compared smartphone-based vital sign monitors with the standard equipment used in doctors' surgeries and hospitals.
The researchers, led by Dr John Alexander of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, compared apps for measuring heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, and blood-oxygen saturation with standard clinical measuring equipment.
After testing 100 volunteers, Alexander's crew found a wide gap between the gold-standard clinical equipment results and those obtained from the smartphone apps. So different were the results that the study, published in the Journal of Clinical Monitoring and Computing, concluded that the apps "do not provide clinically meaningful data".
The report went on to warn that "the inaccurate data provided by these applications can potentially contribute to patient harm".
The take-home message? If you fancy using app-based health monitors, perhaps consider a having your GP work up your vitals first, so you can assess whether your smartphone is doing its job or selling you snake oil.