Smartphones: The Future of Medicine


Apple iPhone 4 with Medical App showing the Thinklabs Electronic Stethoscope  application screen.

Apple iPhone 4 with Medical App showing the Thinklabs Electronic Stethoscope application screen.

The digital revolution will create better health care while radically empowering patients and consumers.

Dr. Eric Topol, distinguished cardiologist and author of ‘’The Creative Destruction of Medicine,’’ lays out his vision for how people will start running common medical tests, skipping office visits and sharing their data with people other than their physicians.

Dr. Topol, a cardiologist at the Scripps Medical Institute in La Jolla, Calif., is already seeing signs of this as companies find ways to hook medical devices to the computing power of smartphones. Devices to measure blood pressure, monitor blood sugar, hear heartbeats and chart heart activity are already in the hands of patients. More are coming.

He acknowledges that some doctors are skeptical of these devices. ‘’Of course, the medical profession doesn’t like D.I.Y. anything,’’ he said. ‘’There are some really progressive digital doctors who are recognizing the opportunities here for better care and prevention, but most are resistant to change.’’

Dr. Topol may be right about the caution in the industry, but he is far from the only person with this vision. Apple was promoting the iPhone as a platform for medical devices in 2009. An entire marketplace is evolving that marries the can-do attitude of hacking devices with the fervor of the wellness movement. Smartphones make taking care of yourself more of a game, Dr. Topol said. ‘’I recommend these devices because it makes it more fun and I get more readings than if I ask them to do it manually.’’

The enthusiasm for this vision of do-it-yourself medicine with a smartphone, though, must be balanced with the cold reality that all of the experimenters should consult with their physicians.

The most prevalent diseases and the biggest markets are getting the tools first. Devices to monitor heart disease are already available.

A French start-up, Withings, has created a blood pressure cuff for $129 that connects to an iPad or an iPhone. The cuff will automatically inflate, deflate and then record the pulse rate and the blood pressure. The app will graph the pressure over time, making trends easier to see.

The growing incidence of diabetes is by many estimates the biggest public health challenge today, so companies are developing tools to help people with the disease manage their blood sugar.

Tom Xu, the founder of SkyHealth in El Cerrito, Calif., created the website glucosebuddy.com to help people keep track of the sugar in their blood. The numbers must be entered manually. The site works with an app for the iPhone to gather the blood glucose level and some information about when it was taken. ‘’Our main goal of glucosebuddy is not to just record numbers. That’s the boring part,’’ he said. ‘’Once you know how your diet affects your blood sugar, you take your health more seriously.’’

Other companies are beginning to integrate the hardware and software. AgaMatrix, a company that makes a blood glucose monitor, iBGStar, that attaches to the iPhone, worked with Sanofi, the pharmaceutical giant, to develop the tool. In December, the Food and Drug Administration approved the device for sale in the United States.

‘’When patients are dealing with chronic conditions, you might see a doctor every six weeks or two months,’’ said Joseph Flaherty, the senior vice president for marketing at AgaMatrix. ‘’For people to have real command over these diseases, we need to close the feedback loop and give people the information they need to make smarter decisions in real time.’’

Its tool, like many other pocket meters, measures the amount of glucose in the blood, but it also transfers the data to the smartphone, which helps patients to track their glucose levels over time. It is not much different from a piece of paper and a pen, but it is faster and cleaner, and it is easy to share these values with doctors and friends.

Source: Wayner, Peter. “Monitoring Your Health with Mobile Devices.” Focus News 29 Feb. 2012: 1-2.

 

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