Could a smartphone app help reduce your risk of cancer? That is the claim from SkinVision, a new app that monitors the skin for suspicious moles and tracks exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays. All you have to do is take a picture of your skin – and at the touch of a button you get an expert analysis of its condition.

Some 40,000 medical apps are now available for smartphones and tablet PCs such as iPads, among them software to help plan a pregnancy, monitor mood swings and help with weight loss. US scientists are even working on an app where, if you cough into your iPhone, it will analyse the cause of the cough – whether serious or otherwise.

Even the Government is getting in on the act, with recent proposals that GPs recommend apps to those patients who are among the 30 million owners of smartphones. “I want to make using apps to track blood pressure, to find the nearest source of support when you need it and to get practical help in staying healthy the norm,” said the then health secretary Andrew Lansley earlier this year.

But are health apps always a good thing? GP and Telegraph columnist Dr Sarah Brewer says they have benefits, but they may also encourage the “worried well” to self-diagnose imaginary diseases. Although, she adds, the provision of good information and robust instructions on what to do, depending on your results, should help to assuage this.

Lincolnshire GP Dr James Thompson (askdocjames.com) agrees that the use of health apps should be encouraged, as long as it’s done in a responsible way. “It is only sensible that the newest technologies are used to try to improve the health of the population,” he says.

Carbs & Cals

For anyone who needs to manage their diet, including diabetics. Contains over 2,000 photographs of common food and drink items: click on the image closest to the portion on your plate to reveal the amount of carbs, calories, fat and fibre it contains, with the total carbs and calories displayed for each meal. A calendar means you can keep a record of past meals.

Gill Grayson’s verdict: “As a diabetic this is great for me, because I can work out exactly how many carbs are on my plate and not rely on guesswork. If I’m out for a meal I can adjust my insulin levels [which regulate blood sugar] accordingly. It gives me a much wider choice of food and helps me to control my blood sugar.”

Dr Sarah Brewer’s verdict: “A great way to keep on track for a slimmer waistline, and good for people with diabetes who need to track their carbs. The visual images of portion sizes will also help those living in 'supersize’ land to reduce portion sizes. By recording what you eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and up to three snacks a day, you can get a fair indication of how many calories/carbs you’ve eaten.”

Availability: iPhone, iPod Touch, Android and BlackBerry (carbsandcals.com). £3.99.

Instant heart rate by Azumio

Monitors the heart rate by the placing of a fingertip on the iPhone’s camera. For a fee, you can store the results as a graph.

Dina Behrman’s verdict: “You place your finger over the camera lens and, as if by magic, your heart rate will flash up on screen in the number of beats per minute. The app tells you if your resting heart rate is within the average range – mine was, thankfully, which was reassuring. There is also the option to check your heart rate during exercise.”

Dr James Thompson’s verdict: “It definitely keeps an accurate pulse when compared to counting manually. Turning off autostop will change it to continuous mode – this allows you to see how quickly your pulse rate settles after exercise, which is a good indicator of how fit you are. I can certainly see the benefit for people interested in their cardiovascular fitness.”

Availability: iPhone and iPad (azumio.com/apps/heart-rate). Free with option to upgrade.

NHS Direct

Online symptom checkers cover all health concerns, including potential emergencies. Offers instant on-screen, self-care advice or instructions on the most appropriate course of action.

Dina Behrman’s verdict: “I found it easy to follow, and all potential health queries are covered – from bites and stings, burns, scalds and electric shocks, to swallowed objects and sexual health.”
Dr Sarah Brewer’s verdict: “Fantastic free resource – like having a doctor or nurse in your pocket. The advice is evidence-based, and the app provides what you need at your fingertips, even if you don’t have access to a computer.”

Availability: Android and iPhone (nhsdirect.nhs.uk/about/MobileApps). Free.


Tracks daily UV exposure according to location, and analyses moles from pictures sent from a smartphone camera. Developed by a team of dermatologists, mathematicians and computer scientists.
Dina Behrman’s verdict: “I photographed a small mole on my back, and was told in seconds I had a ''low-risk skin lesion’’, no immediate action required. I was able to archive the picture, so that any changes could be picked up by taking another picture in six months.”

Dr James Thompson’s verdict: “Useful for raising awareness of moles and of the risks associated with UV exposure. However, it’s important that anyone worried about a mole also goes to their GP. There is always the concern that an app would miss a cancer.”

Availability: iPhone (skinvision.com). £2.99.

Specsavers Sight Check

Sight tests involve holding the phone at the distance you’d normally read a book, and again at arm’s length, to test ability to read a text or series of letters. Tests are done separately on each eye. A disclaimer states that it is not an alternative to a full eye examination.

Dina Behrman’s verdict: “I scored 'below average’ on the test while wearing my contact lenses, even though a recent eye test showed I had the correct prescription. I was 'strongly recommended’ to speak to my optometrist, and directed to their store finder function. Disappointing.”

Ophthalmic surgeon Prof Dan Reinstein’s verdict (londonvisionclinic.com): “This app is very basic and the instructions are not always clear, particularly as to whether you are meant to be testing one eye at a time. I don’t feel that the importance of screening for eye disease is made clear enough.”

Availability: iPhone and Android (specsavers.co.uk/eye-health/sight-check-app/). Free.


A six-minute test for potential hearing loss, which involves plugging in headphones and listening to a series of sounds at different decibel levels. There is also a one-minute test of ability to hear speech in a noisy environment.

Dina Behrman’s verdict: “The app is easy to use, and after carrying out the tests, my hearing was deemed to be within the normal range. There is also a useful questionnaire for those worried about hearing loss.”

Dr James Thompson’s verdict: “This app is likely to confirm a problem that you or your friends, family or colleagues will have noticed already. Any detected hearing loss would need to be formalised by your doctor using audiometry.”

Availability: iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad (itunes.com/apps/uhear). Free.

Vision Test

A series of tests to evaluate sharpness of vision (acuity), astigmatism (poor vision caused by an irregularly shaped cornea), colour vision and duochrome (where red and green is used to spot impaired vision). The acuity test, for example, involves holding the smartphone at arm’s length and identifying letters in decreasing sizes.

Dina Behrman’s verdict: “Each test is explained fully and clearly and the results are displayed in an easy-to-understand format. I scored full marks on all the tests. There’s also a handy local optician finder.”

Dan Reinstein’s verdict: “This is more comprehensive than the SpecSavers app. There are also more questions to indicate the general health of your eyes and any symptoms you may have.”

Availability: iPhone and iPad (itunes.apple.com/gb/app/vision-test/id380288414?mt=8). Free.

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