Diagnose your ailments with apps … sorting the quacks from the genuine help

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Everyone knows the joke about the girl trying to take a pregnancy test online and the plethora of websites claiming to do just that, you know, from getting a general pregnant-vibe from her eyeballs looking at the screen.

Many doctors are concerned about dangerous, inappropriate and plain wrong medical apps aimed at helping people diagnose or treat themselves at home. Since apps are so easy to make, there have been a swarm of farcical software on both iOS and Android.

Instant Blood Pressure was a $4.99 app promising to measure your blood pressure by using a smartphone’s microphone and LED light. By placing your iPhone on your chest it just “reads” your blood pressure. Just like that. A nurse I showed this to started laughing at the idiocy of the premise but abruptly stopped when I mentioned Instant Blood Pressure was one of the top five downloaded apps in the health section of the app store.

Tens of thousands of people had downloaded the app and judging by the comments section, they were using the app instead of traditional blood pressure measuring methods. News organisations had spread the word, but for every phony medical app that’s outed, there are several more willing to wrongly diagnose you with tourettes, herpes or a baby.

Doctors are in the palm of your hand, according to the app stores ... but take care to ensure you are taking bona fide advice.

Doctors are in the palm of your hand, according to the app stores ... but take care to ensure you are taking bona fide advice.

Doctors are in the palm of your hand, according to the app stores … but take care to ensure you are taking bona fide advice. Harry Afentoglou

Genuine help

That being said, e-health has come on in leaps and bounds since Doctor Google began making more frequent house calls, with medical practitioners hyper-aware of the advantages technology can provide to their profession. Be it video link to connect doctors to rural patients, algorithms to diagnose basic conditions or databases to keep track of your nutrition intake, there are some really useful apps that can complement your trendy FitBit.

PEPID is a useful all round diagnosis app – akin to some kind of well-thumbed Mrs Duckworth’s Compendium for Ailments and Weeping Sores. It has an extensive toxicology section where you can look up essentially any type of medication, heavy metal, plant, gas or other household item and how to manage its ingestion, along with antidotes and clinical information.

There’s a drug interaction checker where you can enter the cocktail of substances you may be thinking of consuming and find out whether they might kill you and there’s also a differential diagnosis formulation based on you entering a variety of symptoms.

App Dr Mole allows you to measure and monitor moles.

App Dr Mole allows you to measure and monitor moles.

App Dr Mole allows you to measure and monitor moles. Jessica Sier

The app is extensive and comes recommended by several well-researched practitioners who have vouched for the app’s independence from pharmaceutical companies.

Unfortunately, the app is God-awful to look at – the interface is hideous, lists upon lists. But weirdly, I didn’t notice after a while. It’s like a textbook. There are free versions for iOS and Android which contain the bulk of the reference points, though you can upgrade to a variety of premium services for various subscription fees.

Suspicious moles

Dr Mole allows you to scan your moles and assess the asymmetry, border, colour diameter and evolution. It was moderately uncomfortable asking my colleague to allow me to photograph their mole, but after that intimate exchange, the app used an augmented reality tech to determine their mole was perfectly healthy; no border irregularity or different colours.

You can store your images and set a reminder every few weeks to check your mole isn’t growing or changing. That being said, the app has a screaming disclaimer at the base of the analysis page saying, “If the mole bothered you enough to download this app, then GO CHECK IT OUT by a professional.”

It’s available for iOS, Android and Windows, but if you’re going to create a mole-archive, splurge and get the $6.49 version as the free sample doesn’t allow you to save the images and really map your skin.

Managing anxiety

The anonymity of apps are also appealing for those managing mental health anxieties. ReachOut has released two apps, Worrytime and Breathe, which allow you compartmentalise your worries and control your breathing. Worrytime (free, iOS and Android) asks you to pick a time of the day to deal with your concerns and when something surfaces at another time, you enter it into the app and it’s stored in an envelope. Then you can get on with things. Breathe (free, iOS) uses visual aids to slow your breathing and measures your heart rate. There’s also an Apple Watch version.

On another note, thanks very much for the feedback on this column and the videos. Please keep it coming. Especially weird app recommendations, alternate surfing terminology I could use and outrage at the glorification of serial killer apps. jsier@fairfaxmedia.com.au.

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