Fitness trackers and mental health apps could be doing more harm than good because they are not based on sound science, researchers have warned, comparing some health app developers to “snake oil salesmen of the 1860s”.

Greg Hager, professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, said that in the absence of trials or scientific grounding it was impossible to say whether apps were having the intended effect.

“I am sure that these apps are causing problems,” he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston. Hager cited the one-size-fits-all targets provided by some fitness trackers, such as the Fitbit, which sets users a goal of taking 10,000 steps a day.

The number of healthcare apps has soared in recent years, with more than 165,000 health-related apps available on the Apple store, including ones that offer to monitor blood pressure, calculate insulin doses for diabetics and encourage mindfulness exercises.

“Very few of them are science-based in the tradition of how we would think of doing science-based medicine,” said Hager.

– Hannah Devlin

Read more: Health app could be doing more harm than good, warn scientists

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