National Partnership for Women & Families

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Study: STI health apps may include inaccurate, incomplete information

About one-third of 90 surveyed mobile applications designed to share information about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) contained incomplete and incorrect information, according to a new study in Sexually Transmitted Infections, Reuters reports.

According to the U.K. National Health Service, there are an estimated 102 billion downloads of health-focused apps globally. In the future, the organization intends to develop a list of endorsed apps that focus on a range of medical conditions.

Details on study

For the study, Jo Gibbs of the University College London Department of Infection and Population Health in the U.K. and colleagues based their study methodology on prior research that found the majority of HIV-focused apps "failed to attract user attention and positive reviews" and called on health care officials to "work with app developers to incorporate elements" that curb risk, improve the inclusiveness of apps and bolster their interactivity.

Specifically, for the latest study, researchers in 2014 scanned Google Play and iTunes for apps focused on STIs and genital infections that included information on testing, diagnosis and treatment.

They then assessed 87 such apps to see whether they complied with the 19 principles outlined by the Health on the Net Foundation, which says health apps should include medical qualifications, be confidential, cite data and feature contact information. In addition, the researchers compared the apps' diagnosis and treatment data to what information is available on the UK National Health Services' website for STIs.

Key findings

The researchers found that only 29 percent of the apps assessed met at least six of Health on the Net's 19 criteria, and content varied substantially.

According to the study, 39 percent of the apps, or 34 of the 87 ones assessed, focused on one or two infections, such as genital warts or gonorrhea; 46 percent addressed multiple STIs; and five apps were concentrated on STI testing in general.

Overall, the researchers found that 13 apps were completely accurate, 46 were mostly correct and 28 were partly correct. They said 25 of the apps included more than one potentially harmful piece of information. Such claims included statements like "certain medicinal herbs may also be beneficial in creating a strong immune response against [herpes] in non-infected partners" and advice that seeking treatment for genital warts would harm personal relationships.

The researchers also found that apps available on iOS and Android phones tended to be more correct than those offered on only one platform. Overall, the researchers said only one app included completely correct information about chlamydia, which is the most common STI in the U.K. None of the apps included documentation or citations for the information they provided, the researchers found.

Comments

The study's lead author, Jo Gibbs of the University College London Department of Infection and Population Health, said, "Due to the stigmatized nature of STIs, apps could be a great medium for providing accurate information to those most at risk." However, she noted that "there is very little guidance available for the consumer to assess the accuracy and quality of information provided by apps, and to identify and distinguish those which are likely to provide legitimate, trustworthy content."

Regarding her team's latest study, Gibbs said "there is a lag between conducting the review and the results being published," which means that the "landscape may have changed during this time." She recommended that future research examine how much STI app availability and accuracy has changed since 2014.

Gibbs advised individuals seeking STI information via their smartphones to sidestep apps in favor of online resources. "Although some of the apps we reviewed were of high quality, these were hard to identify," she said, adding, "We would recommend consumers looking for information on STIs to access endorsed health websites or their local sexual health services" (Crist, Reuters, 12/9).