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Wellness apps are not regulated in the U.S. This expert has tips to navigate them safely

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Maricopa County Public Health says older individuals who test positive, or anyone who lives in a communal setting, receive a phone call from a live contact tracer. But one in every five positive cases reported to the county has no contact information.

There are a lot of health-care apps you can use on your phone that are FDA approved — things like diabetes monitors or radiology diagnosis tools. Then, there are a host of other apps that are health-care adjacent — think wellness apps that help you meditate, lose weight or journal.

Those are not regulated — and that can be a problem, according to Vaile Wright, Ph.D. Wright is senior director of the Office of Health Care Innovation for the American Psychological Association. The Show spoke with her more about the world of wellness and health-care apps — and how we can navigate them safely.

Vaile Wright
Vaile Wright
Vaile Wright

Full conversation

VAILE WRIGHT: Health wellness apps, also referred to as direct to consumer apps. They're not intended to actually treat a mental health condition. So they're not there to help cure your depression or your anxiety. They're really meant to help aid in daily living by teaching coping skills and general well being Prescription digital interventions, however, are evidence-based, clinically validated interventions that are meant to treat mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

LAUREN GILGER: Right, so the difference between like a talk therapy app where you're actually, you know, talking to a therapist just on your phone and something like an app that helps you meditate, right? There's a difference there.

WRIGHT: There's a definite difference there, the apps that connect you with a provider where you do traditional talk therapy. We know that that type of intervention is very effective. The challenge with some of these wellness or consumer apps is that there's nobody really making any determination whether what they say they're doing is actually what they're doing.

GILGER: So I wonder in the world of apps, right, like you look at that marketplace, if you searched for health care or mental health or something like that in the app store, you would get a ton of different kinds of things. Do you think that consumers know the difference?

WRIGHT: I'm not sure anybody can really tell the difference when you're talking about thousands of apps on an app store. All saying something that sounds really great. Providers can't tell the difference. Consumers can't tell the difference.

GILGER: Give us some examples of some of these kind of apps that are not necessarily treatment. What are the biggest ones out there? I think of Calm. Is Noom one of these?

WRIGHT: Yeah, so Calm or Headspace, their primary mode of app delivery is using mindfulness and meditation. There's some good data that mindfulness and meditation helps with emotion regulation. But do their apps do what they say? It's sort of unclear, you have to check the data.

Noom is another one that claims to use some psychological principles to help with weight loss. Some other kind of popular apps out there include chat bots like Wobot, which offer kind of coaching services again, coping skills and other types of general lifestyle changes that you can make. On principle, they all sound great. It's just really hard to know if what they're actually delivering is effective.

GILGER: OK, so give us some advice as consumers. If you're looking for something like this and you want something that might be effective, but it's not going to be FDA approved. How do you go about finding out which app might be useful and which might be complete bogus?

WRIGHT: Unfortunately, you can't just rely on the App Store and the number of stars that a app might have, you have to dig deeper. And in fact, you really need to go to the website of that app. Look to see if they've published any independent research showing that they're effective, look to see who their founders are and if they're employing subject matter experts or therapists that actually know the literature and the research as part of their developmental staff, those are really key components to ensuring that at least this app may have something to offer.

GILGER: So when we're talking about unregulated space in health care, it kind of reminds me of the conversation around things like supplements, right? Like it's not like it's all bad, it's just that it's hard to tell what's good.

WRIGHT: Very similar. Yeah. It's, it's the space that, you know, where you have really probably some individual with great intentions wanting to address the mental health crisis, putting the tools and the skills in the hands of people. But without anybody really checking to ensure that what they say is accurate as a consumer, it can just be really hard to figure it out.

GILGER: The other issue that comes up here a lot is privacy, right? Like when we're talking about health-care information and giving it to, you know, an unregulated company.

WRIGHT: Absolutely, these apps not only are they not regulated by any sort of governmental entity, they actually are not subject to HIPAA So there aren't any privacy laws about your personal health care information that's being protected. And that's huge because there could be lots of things that you're entering into these apps that's personally identifiable or health-care information that you might not want out into the world.

GILGER: Have you seen privacy violations? Are these sort of inevitable?

WRIGHT: We have seen privacy violations with certain companies selling your personal data to say social media advertisers or other types of breaches of data. So it's just important for consumers to be aware of what they're putting into the app. Where is that data going? How is it stored? How is it being canceled? And then you have to make a decision about what is comfortable for you.

GILGER: So I wonder if you think there should be more regulation over this kind of thing, like is it, is it crossing some kind of line in your mind? Because they do sort of purport to be health care based.

WRIGHT: I think regulation in this space is critical. And you see it in some other countries like in Europe, for example, they do have regulation in some of the space. I think it's really challenging when you start to peel back the onion, if you will, of all the things it would take to really regulate the space and it's almost like the train has already left the station. I just don't know that there's any way to claw it back in a meaningful way, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try.

GILGER: What kind of regulations exist in other countries? How effective are they?

WRIGHT: Well, I think in other countries. like you have ORCA that is an evaluate tool that really does look at these different apps, creates evaluations, determines whether things are doing exactly what they say they are, whether they're valid, whether they're safe. I think it is effective often for, you know, these other countries, but again, we just don't have anything like that in place currently.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
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