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Fears health apps could lead to misdiagnosis

An increase in health applications [apps] available to smartphone users is worrying health professionals.

More than two-thirds of mobile phone users in New Zealand have a smartphone and can access hundreds of apps related to health and wellbeing.

Some health professionals are worried the use of those apps could lead to wrong self-diagnosis.

University of Canterbury Associate Professor Ray Kirk said there were many apps that tracked the fitness levels of the user, which were great in promoting an active lifestyle.

Kirk, who is based at the university’s School of Health Sciences and was previously at the Christchurch School of Medicine, said he was most concerned by the apps used for self-diagnosis.

“Apps that, for example, measure blood pressure vary in accuracy and people should be cautious about using these,” he said.

Smartphone user Jessica Andronico said she had used some health apps to search for symptoms.

“I once thought I had diabetes after looking through my symptoms – I just freaked myself out,” Andronico said.

Christchurch general practitioner Olivia Currie said she preferred her patients used health apps for researching their illness after they had seen a medical professional.

The Ministry of Health offers a Healthline Symptom Checker app that allows users to enter their symptoms and provides suggestions for courses of action.

The app, which is used by nearly 8000 people, provides a different way of accessing health information and advice.

In February, women made up 62 per cent of users of the app and the top three symptoms searched were abdominal pain, headache and fever.

Since the app was made available in 2013, abdominal pain, back pain and coughs were the most accessed symptoms.

Medibank Health Solutions, which operates the app, said the information provided through the app was not a substitute for health advice, diagnosis or treatment given by a health professional.

“The app does not diagnose. It supports the user to determine what to do and provides self-care advice,” a Medibank Health Solutions spokeswoman said.

Some health professionals were using the app and recommending it to their patients, she said.

By Ryan Thomas for The Press