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Forget WebMD: Should the FDA regulate medical smartphone apps?

I'm sorry, apple, but the prognosis looks bad.
I'm sorry, apple, but the prognosis looks bad.
Viren Kaul/Flickr

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It’s estimated that 75% of American medical doctors carry smartphones. Odds are good that one of them is yours and that he or she is using an app to treat you. Whether it’s one that tracks a patient’s data or a glucose meter that attaches to an iPhone, these “devices” are probably on a doctor’s phone near you. They’re also available at the iTunes App Store to those without medical degrees, which has some worried that people will use them to self-diagnose in place of a necessary visit to the doctor. That perked up the ears of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which this summer announced their intentions to begin regulating the new field, which technically “meets the definition of a [medical]’device’.” The medical-app territory highlights the difficulty of platform crossover and the mismatch of consumer-driven app developers with the medical practice. In one ill-conceived example, the App Store rated “MD on Call” 12+ for “infrequent/mild alcohol, tobacco, or drug use references.” Developers also argue that calculators that compute the right prescription dosage have been available since the days of the PalmPilot and they question why the FDA should treat a smartphone app any differently. If those calculators on smartphones are regulated, what differentiates them from websites that do that same thing?


Dr. Felasfa Wodajo, orthopedic tumor surgeon in Washington D.C. and senior editor of iMedicalapps.com, a site that reviews medical apps