The Real Deal Behind mHealth Apps

Picture of By Ludmila Cmarkova

By Ludmila Cmarkova

Do you want to get fit? Track your sleeping patterns? Improve your physical or mental well-being? Don’t look too far. You are just a few clicks away from a wide array of mobile health apps, also known as mHealth apps, promising you to tackle whatever health-related issue you might have, and the number of such apps is growing every year. The number of health apps available in the Apple App Store almost doubled over the past few years, from little over twenty-eight thousand in 2015 to more than fifty-three thousand in 2021

The mobile health app market is booming. Undoubtedly, these apps are highly convenient and make the lives of many people considerably easier.  When hearing (or reading) about health apps, what most likely pops into your head are the fitness ones: MyFitnessPal, Runkeeper, 8fit. You name it. However, mHealth apps are way more than that. These apps that are meant particularly for tracking the physical health or performance of individuals are called fitness apps. However, there is also a separate category of health apps developed and marketed for different purposes. These are called medical apps and are either used as health monitoring platforms where patients can keep track of their symptoms, behaviour, fertility or menstrual cycles, sleep cycles or even glucose levels, or as experience exchange platforms where patients can connect with people suffering similar diseases. 

Besides helping patients to deal with their medical conditions, these apps serve mainly as platforms for collecting valuable data from their users. A study of mHealth apps available for download in the GooglePlay store revealed that the primary purpose of as much as 88% of these apps is to collect its users´ personal information. Oftentimes, it is not entirely clear how and by whom is this data utilized.  In 2018, HealthEngine, an Australian medical appointment booking app, was involved in a major privacy scandal after it became clear that they were sharing information of more than 130 000 patients with private entities, particularly with law firms searching for clients filling for injury claims and health insurance brokers, without their consent or knowledge. The company claimed that the users of the app consented to HealthEngine sharing their data with third parties through a pop-up, which, however, did not allow users to opt out if they wanted to continue using the app. Unsurprisingly, the Federal Court fined HealthEngine $2.9 million for misleading conduct and sharing of personal information without users´ consent. 

Health Data and the Big Five 

Stating the obvious, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, and Alphabet are pretty much dominating the communications sector. Even though none of these companies is specifically in the health sector, all of them are to some extent involved in it. Apple’s iPhones possess an in-built feature that enables the device to track your steps or heart rate. The same applies to Android systems. A large number of these apps are developed by these companies, not even mentioning the fact that the only way to actually download them is through their own app stores. It is not just software but hardware as well. You might have heard about Amazon´s Halo, a wearable gadget that listens to your voice to detect your emotional state or creates 3D scans for body fat. Even though Amazon claims Halo is not a medical device, it is surely being marketed as one. 

Profit Versus Public Good 

This is where the issue of data privatization by corporations comes in and the ethical question of whether big tech companies such as Apple or Google should be the ones to gatekeep and ultimately monetize on the access to medical data arises. 

You might be wondering where I am going with all this. The truth is that none of these companies is actually interested in using the health data they collect through their products to find a cure for the diseases, but rather in building improved devices and in acquiring more accurate analytics that can be utilized in other sectors. The HealthEngine and its strategy to sell patient data to insurance brokers are just one of the many examples of how such corporations profit off of the collected data. This is where the issue of data privatization by corporations comes in and the ethical question of whether big tech companies such as Apple or Google should be the ones to gatekeep and ultimately monetize on the access to medical data arises. 

mHealth Apps? Just Another Call for Stricter Data Privacy Regulations

Given the particularly sensitive nature of the data handled via mHealth apps, a call for accountability and greater transparency and clarity regarding data collection and use is necessary. The issue does not lie in companies not asking their users for their consent to share their data with third parties. Most of them actually do that. It is the way they do it which is particularly problematic. The sheer length of the privacy policy documents written in the smallest possible fonts makes it practically impossible to actually read and understand these policies. A group of very dedicated researchers actually looked into how long it would take a person to read all the privacy policies they encounter in a year. Result?

76 workdays. And let’s be honest. Who the hell has time for that? 

Edited By: Pritha Ray

Cover: cottonbro

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