Feature Health and Technology

What happens to data gathered by health and wellness apps?

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i3406 (Published 23 June 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i3406
  1. Stephen Armstrong, freelance journalist, London, UK
  1. stephen.armstrong{at}me.com

With mobile health apps and wearables becoming ubiquitous, the data they gather are being sold for commercial profit, Stephen Armstrong reports

Is there something dangerous at the heart of your mobile phone? Health and wellness apps and wearables are a burgeoning phenomenon. According to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics there are roughly 170 000 health apps on the Apple and Android app stores,1 and a recent US survey found that 58% of smartphone users have downloaded at least one of them.2

At the same time, there’s an explosion in so called health wearables such as the fitness tracker Fitbit. They measure more and more things, from posture and sleep patterns, to steps taken, blood pressure, vision, body temperature, and heart activity.3 Forecasts from digital health consultants Tractica suggest we’ll be buying 98 million wearable health devices every year by 2021.4 Fitbit alone sold 21 million units in 2015.5

Indeed, using wearables in routine healthcare is UK government policy. In September 2015, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, outlined plans to get a quarter of smartphone users—15% of all NHS patients—routinely accessing NHS advice, services, and medical records through apps by the end of the next financial year. “I also want patients not just to be able to read their medical record on their smartphone but to add to it, whether by recording their own comments or by plugging in their own wearable devices to it,” Hunt said.6 The NHS plans to start issuing free apps and wearables to patients in 2017.7

Poor protection

Yet recent research shows most health apps provide little or no protection for the data they collect—despite such data being classified as “sensitive” under data protection laws. When signing up to use an app, people have to accept a …

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