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Winter 2014

Topical Applications

Date: February 1, 2014

Staish Misra’s website helps health care providers sift through voluminous information.
Staish Misra’s website helps health care providers sift through voluminous information.

It seemed too good to be true, and it was. In May 2010, Satish Misra published an article on, the website he co-founded, debunking the claims of mobile applications that promised to heal acne through light emitted from smartphones.

“We downloaded all these apps, looked through them, and realized there was zero factual basis” for the claims, says the third-year medical resident at Hopkins Hospital. While phototherapy can be used for acne treatment, he correctly concluded that cellphones cannot produce enough light to be therapeutic. A year later, the Federal Trade Commission removed two of the applications from the market and fined their developers.

Though it’s not clear if his article played a role in the FTC’s action, Misra says, the move underscores the importance of the website he helped found. Mobile medical applications are shaping medicine at a startling pace, and health care providers have few ways to gauge whether they are beneficial, harmful, or simply useless.

Misra, 29, founded in 2009 with his childhood friend Iltifat Husain, an emergency medicine resident at the Wake Forest School of Medicine. The site’s 14 reviewers cast a critical eye on new applications. They review the mobile applications’ data, any conflicts of interest, and assess their overall advantages versus potential harm. Typical evaluation criteria, says Misra, include, “Is it easy to use? Does it get you the information you need? Who would benefit?”

The site has grown from a blog written by the two medical students to an online destination receiving about 600,000 views a month from people all over the world. Most are health care providers. As doctors begin turning to medical apps for training, information, and health screenings, many are also urging patients to use them to monitor chronic conditions and promote wellness through applications that may help with nutrition choices and smoking cessation.

The world of mobile applications is still new, and regulations are evolving. While the Food and Drug Administration focuses its attention on applications with clearly misleading claims or potential to cause harm, helps providers sift through the myriad other possibilities.

The site’s reviewers have investigated more than 300 medical applications, including ones that help physicians take notes, chart connections between journal articles, monitor fetal heart rates, and provide chemotherapy guidance. One app that received a top review was BurnMed, developed by Stephen Milner, director of the Johns Hopkins Burn Center, and biomedical engineer Harry Goldberg, an assistant dean in the School of Medicine. Developed in part with funds from the Burn Unit at Bayview, the app provides easy-to-follow information and tutorials for first responders.

Misra and Husain are updating the website to make it easier to navigate, and are planning to hire at least three more reviewers. Though the website is nominally a for-profit venture that includes advertisements and pays its reviewers for their work, any revenues go back into the business, according to Misra, who is in training to become a cardiologist.

“We feel like what we do is important: promoting things we think are valuable and outing things we think are questionable,” he says. “This is a way to shape what we think will be an important part of health care delivery.” Karen Nitkin