mHealth data privacy: a worrying finding

We reported last August on a YouGov poll that found nine out of ten people not knowing what the term ‘telehealth’ meant.  Now they’ve been at it again, this time looking at mHealth, sponsored by Pinsent Masons.  From a poll of 2000 people, they found that:

“Prior to being given a definition of mHealth, the majority (73%) of respondents didn’t know what the term meant, and when explained 90% stated they never used mHealth services, despite the examples given including established applications such as fitness apps.”

Perhaps there’s a little encouragement that the figure was less than the 90% for telehealth. However it’s hard to get too excited that the public are unfamiliar with such a technical term – contrary to the tone of the press release, it’s not likely to affect their willingness for example to use fitness or dieting apps. What is far more worrying is the finding that:

“Despite the on-going attention paid to privacy issues in the media a significant majority (62%) of respondents suggested they were unconcerned about the privacy of their medical data.”

Perhaps the recent example of the iPharmacy app exposed by Appthority and reported by FierceMobile Healthcare is an extreme example; however it makes the point that medical data is not just things like whether you have a sore throat. It’s also “searches for drugs on the app” which “are sent over the network, along with your user info, without any encryption at all”. Worse, personal information “such as phone number, device’s IMEI number, exact geo-location, Wi-Fi access points currently in use (and used in the past), a list of apps on a device, wireless carrier and exact model of phone” was sent by this app to three different ad networks.

As per our recent mHealth predictions for 2014, the issue of data privacy is likely to become a serious issue holding back public adoption of medical apps unless developers collectively respond, for example to the recent ICO privacy guidelines for app developers, and perhaps Lauren Still’s “10 tips” advice in MHealth News.

As I’ll be explaining shortly, my view is that there are many aspects of mHealth apps that need getting right before, if ever, we need to start worrying about whether the public understands the terminology.  Privacy is obviously one, and one that  the public clearly need educating on too.  Then there is the need to clarify the process for identifying and certifying those apps that are medical devices (which I tend to refer to as “medical apps”).  Perhaps equally important is proof of efficacy; even better is knowing which apps are most cost effective. And all this without impacting the pace of development & innovation. Watch this space.

Finally, I have searched in vain for the full text of the survey, as it’s always nice to check the details.  I owe Prof Mike Short my thanks both for alerting me to the item in Mobile World Live and pointing me to the press release.

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