Smartphones are revolutionising the way in which conditions such as asthma, diabetes and osteoporosis are diagnosed, with sensors and apps being used for medical purposes. According to experts, these technologies are even making it easier to remotely monitor chronic illnesses such as these, marking a paradigm shift in the doctor-patient relationship.
"The cameras, flashes, microphones and GPS" on mobile telephones are "becoming ever more sophisticated", and are now capable of “matching specialised imaging equipment". Thus said Shwetak Patel, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, who believes that smartphones are revolutionising medicine as we know it.
Pedometers, monitors for haemoglobin and iron levels
Our mobile telephones can already be used as a pedometer, count the number of calories we burn and measure our heart rate. However, cellphones and tablets can also be converted into high-performance diagnostic tools by modifying the usage of their sensors.
"The microphones can be used to measure lung capacity and detect an asthma attack or chronic obstructive bronchopneumopathy," said Professor Patel at this year’s annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.
It is also possible to use the camera and the flash, in conjunction with a specific app, to measure haemoglobin levels in the blood on your finger, and determine if the person is anaemic or iron-deficient. A movement sensor in smartphones can even be used to detect osteoporosis, which is a reduction in bone density that usually has to be diagnosed with a scanner (1).
Diagnostics and screening tools
"You can create diagnostics and screening tools in a way that was impossible in the past, and which totally changes how diagnoses are carried out, and how chronic illnesses are treated and handled," explained Professor Patel, who sees the apps as a better way of dealing with illnesses outside of doctors’ surgeries.
"The impact of these new advances in technology could well be even greater in developing countries, where screening equipment like this is virtually non-existent in doctors’ surgeries," he added.
Regular access to medical data
While they are not yet on general sale throughout the world, this new personalised medical equipment is already changing the relationship between doctors and patients in France, the USA and Asia. It gives patients the possibility to have regular access to medical data that in the past was only available once a year, at their doctor’s surgery.
"Studies have shown that mobile technology has significantly altered the behaviour of people suffering from diabetes and cancer (...) who are now in far better position to look after themselves," said Elizabeth Mynatt, professor at the college of interactive computing at Georgia Institute of Technology.
Less expensive clinical studies
"The increasing availability of mobile platforms is highly encouraging when it comes to negating socio-economic disparities in terms of access to medical care," Professor Mynatt added, saying that smartphones are also a means of collecting vast quantities of medical data with a view to more accurate clinical tests.
A typical clinical study currently costs at least 12 million US dollars. With smartphones, says Gregory Hager, head of the Center for Engineering in Healthcare at the Johns Hopkins faculty of medicine, it should be possible to carry out "micro-clinical trials that are far more efficient" using real-time data that are closer to actual circumstances and at far lower costs.
(1). These applications are currently awaiting authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration.