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Health apps come with alerts on private data provided on Facebook, Google

New Zealand doctors and patients are warned to be careful when using digital applications to help with things like depression or smoking cessation.

using health monitoring app on smartphone

An international study found that many applications passed on to patients transmit private data to external sources.
Photo: 123RF

The warnings follow an international study that has found that many applications passed on to patients transmit private data to external sources such as Facebook or Google.

Researchers at the University of New South Wales and Harvard Medical School have researched highly rated applications used for depression and smoking cessation.

Of the 36 apps they looked at, 33 data sent to external organizations and 29 data sent to Facebook or Google.

Of the data-sending applications, only 12 have clarified this in their privacy statements.

The authors said that this means that health professionals who check that mobile applications are safe and safe for patients cannot rely on checking personal data from applications.

Instead, they must look for applications that have been professionally reviewed and reliably detected to have secure data transfers.

Caring for private information was "particularly important in mental health, given increased privacy concerns about stigma and the negative effects of unintentional disclosure," the authors said.

Applications are a valuable option

The University of Auckland medical professor Bruce Arroll said many New Zealand doctors found applications that were a valuable option to offer patients.

In his experience, doctors have often tried to use applications themselves to see if they work before recommending them. Or they can listen to recommendations from colleagues.

“GPs are increasingly prescribing them. I've heard about general practitioners who often give patients a list of two, three, or four applications, or maybe websites for people who go looking for things for themselves.

"Sometimes I would encourage patients to look at some of those mindful and everyday worries and anxieties and people who have too much accelerator and don't have enough brakes in their lives."

Private information leak would be of great interest to doctors who may not be aware of these risks, he said.

"We are careful, of course, with medication – but it is a well organized system – if I prescribe something and you were allergic to it my computer would tell me. A similar thing would be good for applications and websites, a list of those that are recommended, so you may know that you are actually prescribing something that is safe and safe. "

User Beware

There are over 350,000 health apps in app stores, and some of the most popular topics include weight loss, pregnancy and diabetes, says Auckland Dr Janine Bycroft.

She is the Executive Director of Health Navigator, a website of the Department of Health that offers online health resources, including a list of health applications that have checked for usefulness, credibility, and relevance to New Zealand.

"Anyway, they all use apps, but there are no guidelines to help people choose if the app can be useful or safe for them."

However, being absolutely sure of their privacy was not practical, so it was a user's case, she said.

"Privacy … is an area that is still spreading and is constantly evolving in terms of how you evaluate the privacy and security of applications for health – and the fact that developers can change the code overnight."

"Maybe you did a really thorough assessment, changed the code overnight and then how do you stand in the ranking?"

"So we talked to a lot of DHB and the Ministry of Health around it, and we basically agreed that we don't have the ability to do it as a small organization – so we're trying to look at what big organizations are doing in this overseas space."

Instead, she recommended that she be aware of the recommendations in the apps and be careful about what personal information is embedded in them.

Health applications inevitable

An e-medicine expert, Professor Anil Thapliyal, said New Zealand is known for developing some innovative and valuable health applications, especially in the area of ​​mental health.

Applications have become more sophisticated over the past decade and have expanded, making them inevitable to be used and prescribed.

“But we are lagging behind in implementing standards and certification frameworks. [doctors] use. "

"It is very important to us because technology is evolving and moving so fast that sometimes national systems and policies are very difficult to keep up with this development – but we must go down that path."

Australia is currently developing privacy and security standards for e-medicine that New Zealand should take note of.

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