Smartphones are revolutionizing diagnostics and disease management

Mobile Health Apps

By Teresa Manring 

The cell phone in your pocket may soon help you diagnose and monitor diseases.

As mobile phones become more advanced and ubiquitous, researchers are exploring technologies embedded within them to screen for, diagnose and manage health issues between office visits, said researchers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston last weekend.

Mobile phones and other personal devices allow for “more continuous measurements, measurements at home, measurements when you actually have a symptom,” said Shwetak Patel, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Washington, at an AAAS press briefing.

Tools such as the camera, flash and microphone on mobile phones keep getting better and better, Patel said.

“Those sensors that are already on the mobile phone can actually be repurposed in interesting new ways, where you can actually use those for diagnosing certain kinds of diseases,” he added.

With the app SpiroSmart, developed by Patel and others at the University of Washington’s ubicomplab, users breathe into the microphone of their smartphones in order to monitor their lung function. With careful usage, the app may also offer a preliminary diagnosis of conditions such as asthma and COPD.

Hema App, also developed at the University of Washington, applies the camera and flash of a mobile phone to identify conditions like anemia, hemoglobin deficiency or iron deficiency. Unlike typical blood tests, this blood screening tool is completely noninvasive.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing the apps as part of its screening process for clinical testing.

Apps like these make it easier for doctors and patients to work together to manage their diseases and give researchers more data to analyze. They also have the potential to make a big impact on health care worldwide, Patel said.

“You can imagine this being used as a screening tool or the broader impact in developing countries where screening tools don’t even exist in primary care,” he told reporters at an AAAS news briefing.

As of last year, more than 165,000 health care apps have been downloaded more than a billion times, according to Gregory Hager, a professor of computer science at John’s Hopkins University.

But despite their potential and popularity, so far, the vast majority of these apps lack evidence-based research, Hager said.

Many of these apps and devices also raise privacy concerns around what happens to the highly sensitive data that they collect.

Mobile apps’ user agreements usually state which data is being captured, where it’s being stored and who has access to it. But most users don’t even read the agreement, Hager said.  And individual apps offer varying amount of security to the user.

“It’s basically a Wild West out there,” Hager said after the press briefing.

Still, researchers were optimistic about the way mobile devices could empower patients and address health disparities, both in the U.S. and worldwide.

“It really changes the way we diagnose, treat, and manage chronic diseases,” Patel said.

Photo at top: Mobile health apps are revolutionizing healthcare. (Mariah Quintanilla/MEDILL)