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Study Reveals Inaccuracies in STI Apps

As smartphones have gained in popularity, consumers have begun using mobile apps to learn about health issues that affect them personally. Recognizing an opportunity to educate people, public health advocates have collaborated with app developers over the past several years to create thousands of mobile medical apps to disseminate health information about conditions including sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Recent research has found that a disconcertingly high portion of these apps fall short in providing safe, accurate and comprehensive information about sexual health. Since the same population demographic that most embraces app technology – young people – also happens to the be most at risk for STIs, researchers are investigating the utility of app technology for providing information about STI symptoms and prevention. One recent study reviewed 87 of these apps for accuracy and content.

The results, published in the Journal of Sexually Transmitted Infections, suggest that the health information contained in many mobile apps ranges from incomplete to potentially harmful to the reader. Only 13 of the 87 apps tested contained completely accurate information. None of the apps cited the sources where their health information came from (e.g. medical providers or textbooks), and 39% of apps only covered 1 – 2 infections.

Of most concern, 29% of the apps tested in the study were found to contain at least one piece of potentially harmful information.

“Genital warts are bad. If they form in a bunch on your genitals, you will have a very bad time getting them treated and your relationships will shatter,” according to one app.

Study authors not only pointed out that such statements are false but also characterized them as “condemnatory and scaremongering.”

Other apps claimed that certain “medicinal herbs” are proven to treat and prevent herpes, though no clinical studies have concluded such findings. Most apps failed to list the medical credentials or even the names of their authors, so there is little to no accountability for apps that publish false information about STIs. Moreover, mobile apps, including the health information they contain, are largely unregulated since they are rarely classified as medical devices. Because many consumers struggle to assess the reliability of health information on the Internet, the study authors point out that an accreditation process for STI apps could help improve accuracy of their information.

Dr. Jo Gibbs, the lead author of the study, conducts clinical research on sexual health and human-computer interaction at University College London. In a recent presentation at the 7th annual Digital Health Conference, Gibbs reiterated the importance of online health information in the digital age. Given the stigma surrounding STIs, she asserts that people often rely upon online sources for information about STI symptoms, treatment, and prevention. This phenomenon, combined with many young people’s fondness for app technology, means that mobile apps have the potential to serve a critical role in educating people about STIs.

There are several useful tips for determining the quality of online health information. The Health on the Net Foundation, for example, recommends that medical information on the Web lists the qualifications of its authors, cites sources, discloses financial conflicts of interest and clearly differentiates between content and advertisements. Consumers of online medical information can apply these criteria to discern whether a particular website should be trusted.