App catalogs are flush with titles that allow users to play doctor, but according to the FDA, most of them are harmless and don't warrant regulatory oversight. Instead, the agency has announced that it'll take a more reactive, risk-based approach and will only require approval for mobile apps that "present a greater risk to patients if they do not work as intended." Specifically, the FDA will scrutinize apps that perform the functions of regulated medical devices -- such as an ECG monitor -- along with those that are used as accessories to regulated medical equipment. As a telling statistic, only 100 mobile apps have received FDA clearance within the past decade, so imagine what would happen to the agency's workload if it tried to exercise control over the Apple App Store and Google Play Store combined.
FDA issues final guidance on mobile medical apps
Tailored approach supports innovation while protecting consumer safety
Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued final guidance for developers of mobile medical applications, or apps, which are software programs that run on mobile communication devices and perform the same functions as traditional medical devices. The guidance outlines the FDA's tailored approach to mobile apps.
The agency intends to exercise enforcement discretion (meaning it will not enforce requirements under the Federal Drug & Cosmetic Act) for the majority of mobile apps as they pose minimal risk to consumers. The FDA intends to focus its regulatory oversight on a subset of mobile medical apps that present a greater risk to patients if they do not work as intended.
Mobile apps have the potential to transform health care by allowing doctors to diagnose patients with potentially life-threatening conditions outside of traditional health care settings, help consumers manage their own health and wellness, and also gain access to useful information whenever and wherever they need it.
Mobile medical apps currently on the market can, for example, diagnose abnormal heart rhythms, transform smart phones into a mobile ultrasound device, or function as the "central command" for a glucose meter used by a person with insulin-dependent diabetes.
"Some mobile apps carry minimal risks to consumer or patients, but others can carry significant risks if they do not operate correctly. The FDA's tailored policy protects patients while encouraging innovation," said Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., J.D., director of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health.
The FDA is focusing its oversight on mobile medical apps that:
are intended to be used as an accessory to a regulated medical device – for example, an application that allows a health care professional to make a specific diagnosis by viewing a medical image from a picture archiving and communication system (PACS) on a smartphone or a mobile tablet; or
transform a mobile platform into a regulated medical device – for example, an application that turns a smartphone into an electrocardiography (ECG) machine to detect abnormal heart rhythms or determine if a patient is experiencing a heart attack.
Mobile medical apps that undergo FDA review will be assessed using the same regulatory standards and risk-based approach that the agency applies to other medical devices.
The agency does not regulate the sale or general consumer use of smartphones or tablets nor does it regulate mobile app distributors such as the 'iTunes App store" or the "Google Play store."
The FDA received more than 130 comments on the draft guidance issued in July 2011. Respondents overwhelmingly supported the FDA's tailored, risk-based approach.
"We have worked hard to strike the right balance, reviewing only the mobile apps that have the potential to harm consumers if they do not function properly," said Shuren. "Our mobile medical app policy provides app developers with the clarity needed to support the continued development of these important products."
The agency has cleared about 100 mobile medical applications over the past decade; about 40 of those were cleared in the past two years.