Detecting diseases via app: How does it work?

Is it just a cold or is it Corona? Various apps help you to recognize illnesses and thus to start appropriate treatment as quickly as possible. Here you can read about the cases in which smartphones can be used for diagnosis and what you should bear in mind.

Corona, skin cancer, depression: There are now numerous apps that can detect diseases relatively reliably. As a rule, you have to answer a few questions about your state of health and are then presented with possible diagnoses and recommendations for action via smartphone. But even though artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly clever: In an emergency, you should always consult a flesh-and-blood doctor.

Apps on prescription: Digital support for your health

Modern smartphones are the Swiss army knives of our time. They combine so many practical functions that they have become an indispensable part of our everyday lives. We now not only do our shopping, but also our banking and even our tax returns by cell phone as a matter of course. But what about our health? Which apps can detect diseases at an early stage? How recommendable are such diagnostic apps and can they really replace a visit to the doctor's office?

To answer these questions, it is important to distinguish between pure wellness apps and medical apps. The popular fitness trackers and pedometers, for example, fall into the wellness and lifestyle category: they encourage you to lead a healthy lifestyle and help you monitor your athletic successes. In contrast, medical apps are considered digital medicines that must prove safe and effective in scientific studies. For example, you can use them to check symptoms and determine your risk for certain diseases like skin cancer. In addition, sensors in your smartwatch can collect information about your heartbeat and use an app to warn you of dangerous atrial fibrillation.

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Did you know?

Since 2020, certain health apps have been available from doctors on prescription - some even require a prescription. The costs are then covered by public health insurance or are reimbursed by private health insurance.

1. Ada health: find disease by symptoms

Are you looking for an app that detects diseases? One of the most well-known and popular free diagnostic apps is Ada. The smartphone app was developed by Berlin-based startup Ada Health and is registered as a Class I medical device in the European Union. It's easy to use: Ada asks you a few simple questions about your symptoms to narrow down your health problem - similar to how a doctor takes a medical history. Based on your answers, an AI then performs an analysis and provides possible causes for your symptoms. It also recommends whether you should see a flesh-and-blood medical expert.

Ada claims to have been developed by doctors so that the application thinks like a doctor. In fact, Ada offers you a convenient way to enter symptoms and have them analyzed, regardless of location or time. This is especially handy for those who first want a general assessment to decide whether a visit to the doctor is even necessary.

But the app has recently come under massive criticism:

The developers' collaboration with companies such as Facebook and Bayer, as well as shortcomings in data protection, earned Ada negative headlines. The national chairman of the German GP Association, Ulrich Weigeldt, even explicitly warned against apps like Ada: "What happens, for example, if patients don't go to the doctor because of a misdiagnosis by the app?" For him, an AI is unsuitable for diagnosing a disease. "Personal contact, knowledge of the patient's social environment, and a medical examination using all the senses are simply essential. Seeing, feeling, smelling, and hearing cannot be replaced by a few clicks on a smartphone," he wrote in a newsletter to the members of his association.

2. detect Covid-19 symptoms: Initial assessment via app

During the Covid-19 pandemic, demand for digital medical services surged. Video consultations and phone consultations have enabled patients to avoid unnecessary doctor visits - reducing the risk of corona infection. Between March and June 2020 alone, 1.2 million video consultations were held in Germany. In the same period last year, there were just 583, reports „Ärztezeitung“. This leap shows how important the topic of e-health has become in a very short time.

Good to know:

Whether you have been infected with the coronavirus can only be determined with the necessary accuracy by an appropriate test. However, an initial assessment is made possible, for example, by the CovApp of the Berlin Charité. Prof. Dr. Ulrich Frei, head of the Department of Patient Care at Charité, commented, "Due to the high demand in our Charité examination center, it is even more important not to put people whose symptoms do not point to SARS-CoV-2 at risk in the examination center and, conversely, to be able to swab patients who urgently need testing as quickly as possible."

The browser-based app includes a questionnaire where you can enter possible COVID-19 symptoms. You then get a recommended course of action - such as whether you should see a doctor.

3. detect skin cancer: New Google app coming

Google announced the new "Derm Assist" tool at its I/O developer conference in summer 2021. The health app is designed to detect pathological skin changes with the help of artificial intelligence and thus make a valuable contribution to the early detection of cancer.

And this is how it works:

Users answer a few questions about their skin type and symptoms and take photos from different perspectives of the affected skin area. The AI then compares this information with 288 diseases, lists possible diagnoses and provides further links. In the EU, the tool is already certified as medical equipment, but it’s not known exactly yet when it will be launched.

What is already criticized before launch:

Although the new Google app is not even on the market yet, criticism has already been voiced. Apparently, the AI has not been trained or has been insufficiently trained for the detection of skin diseases in darker skin types. This should definitely be improved if Google wants to refute the accusation of "racial bias". In addition, the app does not solve a fundamental problem: Many people, especially patients with public health insurance, must wait a long time for an appointment with a specialist. So, if the app detects symptoms that point to a malignant skin change, this does not mean that those affected can see a dermatologist promptly to start treatment.

4. Therapy apps: first aid for depression and addictions

Patients may have to wait a long time for an appointment, and not just at the dermatologist. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists are often booked up months in advance - or do not accept new patients. So, it's not surprising that there are also more and more supporting apps in the field of mental and psychosomatic illnesses. Various digital applications for the treatment of addiction, sleep disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children are already in use in the US and may soon be approved as medical devices in the EU. Diary apps such as Arya already help depressives to record their moods and thus recognize in good time when a depressive episode is imminent.

Would you like to know how the digital revolution is turning the German healthcare system upside down? In the ottonova magazine, you'll find lots of exciting articles on telemedicine and e-health. For example, we tell you how headaches can be treated digitally, how you can promote your heart health via an app, and where you can get the digital Corona vaccination certificate.

Natalie Decker
HIER SCHREIBT Natalie Decker

Natalie has been working as an editor for 15 years. In addition to lifestyle topics, her main focus is on medicine and health. She writes for the online portal gesund-vital.de and the advice publisher Gräfe und Unzer, among others.

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