HEALTH

A Popular Blood Pressure App Settles Charges It Deceived Consumers

The FTC has deemed the app's marketing materials to be misleading and potentially hazardous

HEALTH
Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Dec 12, 2016 at 2:36 PM ET

Backers of a popular mobile app that claims to measure blood pressure have reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission following the revelation that its readings could be dangerously inaccurate.

The settlement comes as mobile health apps in general are coming under increased scrutiny. Recent research, for example, found that even the most highly-rated of these apps often failed to deliver appropriate medical warnings when given potentially dangerous information from users. It’s the reason that many believe there should be increased communication between the FTC, Federal Drug Administration, and software developers before apps are released to a trusting public.

Instant Blood Pressure, which spent over 22 weeks as one of the 50 top-selling apps for iPhone users in 2014 at a cost of $3.99 to $4.99 per download, had used smartphone cameras pressed against the user’s index finger and chest to generate the users’ alleged systolic and diastolic blood pressure reading. No human clinical testing to substantiate these claims had been conducted prior to the app’s release, according to the FTC.

As dictated by the settlement, Aura Labs, the company behind the app, is prohibited from releasing any products that claim to measure blood pressure in the future. (The $595,945 penalty associated with the charges has been waived, given that the company and its CEO are unable to pay.)

The validity of Instant Blood Pressure’s readings were first refuted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in a study published earlier this year. The researchers had found that Instant Blood Pressure’s readings were “not accurate by any measure” and advocated for regulatory bodies like the FTC, FDA or even Apple and Google to do more to validate mobile health apps claims before they’re widely available to the public. The research led to the app being pulled from the Google Play and iTunes app stores last year.

Aura Labs said in a press release that the end to the court proceedings as “a win for the company,” that will enable it to move on and “refocus our time, energy, and resources on furthering digital health innovation.” The company refuted the basis of the FTC’s complaint, saying that it “never claimed that the Instant Blood pressure app’s performance characteristics were equivalent to that of a conventional blood pressure cuff.” (A screenshot of user reviews obtained by iMedicalApps.com, however, found that many seemed to believe this was the case. Further, the FTC argues that the promise to “measure blood pressure with just your phone…no cuff required” made such claims implicit.)

In addition to the unsupported claims IBP made as to its medical accuracy, the FTC also found that the owner of the app had provided a five-star app rating in app stores without mentioning his relation to the company. In an Apple app review, Aura CEO and President Ryan Archdeacon called his product “a breakthrough for blood pressure monitoring.” As the FTC noted in a blog post, it is illegal for advertisers to post reviews falsely suggesting they’re independent evaluators.