SAN DIEGO – How much damage could a diabetes app do? Plenty. That was the word from a Food and Drug Administration official and a technology guru who spoke to a crowd of diabetes educators about the dangers lurking in apps that promise to track things like insulin dosing.
An app could jeopardize the safety of a patient and provide inaccurate data, advised Molly McElwee, RN, CDE, head of Patient Engagement at TypeZero Technologies. “Vet the app that your patient is using or wants to use. Really vet your apps for these patients.”
Ms. McElwee told an audience at the annual meeting of the American Association of Diabetes Educators that more than 84 “bolus calculator” apps are available for iPhone and Android. But only one, the Accu-Check Connect app, is cleared by the FDA for use with a prescription, she confirmed in an interview. Some app makers claim that their technology has been cleared in their countries of origin, but that raises questions about whether the technology has gone through proper vetting, she said.
“The idea you’d let someone with no medical experience just design [an app], put it out there for you, and then tell you how to dose seems a bit odd,” but that’s the way things work in the “murky, uncharted territory” of apps, she said.
Why is there a need for diabetes apps in the first place? As Ms. McElwee noted, many diabetes patients make crucial decisions about their insulin injections each day. “There aren’t a lot of other diseases where you’re dosing something that could kill you if you dose it incorrectly.” That is exactly why “people look for things like an app that can help them,” she noted.
The FDA does indeed regulate medical apps but far from all of them. It doesn’t regulate apps such as calorie counters and exercise trackers because they’re considered to be low risk, said Courtney Lias, PhD, director of the FDA’s Division of Chemistry and Toxicology Devices. “They don’t give advice or tell patients what action to take,” she said. Nor does the FDA regulate apps that retrospectively analyze data from insulin pumps, she said.
The FDA regulates apps such as insulin-dosing calculators and those used to calculate the levels of insulin injections via a pump, she said. But Apple’s App Store and Google’s Google Play, both of which sell apps, aren’t required to take down apps that don’t comply with FDA regulations, according to Ms. McElwee. Indeed, the FDA says it doesn’t regulate app stores, nor does it regulate manufacturers of devices such as smartphones, although the stores may set their own policies. Instead, “the onus is on the company, the developer, to take the correct regulatory pathway,” Ms. McElwee said.
What’s next? Dr. Lias noted that the FDA will monitor apps that command and control insulin pumps, especially as automated insulin delivery systems loom on the horizon. But there are a variety of technical challenges. How will operating systems be updated? What will happen to critical functions when a phone call interrupts the operation of a diabetes app? What about warnings when the phone is muted? Dr. Lias wondered.
One thing is clear, she said: “The explosion of apps is directly related to how much they’re needed.”
Ms. McElwee and Dr. Lias reported having no relevant financial disclosures.