Smartphones are revolutionising the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses, thanks to add-ons and apps that make their ubiquitous small screens into medical devices, researchers say: “If you look at the camera, the flash, the microphone… they all are getting better and better,” said Shwetak Patel, engineering professor at the University of Washington.
“In fact the capabilities on those phones are as great as some of the specialized devices,” he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting this week.
Smartphones can already act as pedometers, count calories and measure heartbeats. But mobile devices and tablets can also become tools for diagnosing illness. “You can use the microphone to diagnose asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder),” Patel said. “With these enabling technologies you can manage chronic diseases outside of the clinic and with a non-invasive clinical tool.”
It is also possible to use the camera and flash on a mobile phone to diagnose blood disorders, including iron and hemoglobin deficiency. “You put your finger over the camera flash and it gives you a result that shows the level of hemoglobin in the blood,” Patel said.
An app called HemaApp was shown to perform comparably well as a non-smartphone device for measuring hemoglobin without a needle. Researchers are seeking approval from the US Food and Drug Administration for its wider use.
Smartphones can also be used to diagnose osteoporosis, a bone disorder common in the elderly. Just hold a smartphone, turn on the right app in hand and tap on your elbow.
“Your phone’s motion picture sensor picks up the resonances that are generated,” Patel said. “If there is a reduction in density of the bone, the frequency changes, which is the same as you will have in an osteoporosis bone.”
Such advances can empower patients to better manage their own care, Patel said.
“You can imagine the broader impact of this in developing countries where screening tools like this in the primary care offices are non-existent,” he told reporters. “So it really changes the way we diagnose, treat and manage chronic diseases.”