The iTunes store and Google Play are “riddled” with health apps which either do not work or could even be dangerous to users, according to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, whose in-depth report appeared in The Washington Post.

Many health apps have become notorious for their unlikely claims, such as how the light from an iPhone can cure acne or a US$3 Android app can determine if a user has a healthy heart.

The center examined 1,500 paid-for health apps that have been available since June 2011 and found that more than 20 percent of them claim to treat or cure medical problems. Of these 331 so-called therapeutic apps, about 43 percent relied on the sound from a cellular handset for treatment. An another dozen used the handset’s light to treat a condition. And two others used the vibration from a phone.  

But according to the center, these claims are not based on any provable medical fact.”Scientists say none of these methods could possibly work for the conditions in question”, says the article.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a draft last year of regulations for medical apps but the final version has yet to appear, thanks to “debates, hearings and legislative back-and-forth” over whether imposing rules would hold back innovation and stifle a growing marketplace.

There are private sector efforts to offer some kind of benchmarking service for consumers and patients. Most high profile of these efforts is Happtique’s app-certification programme.