Smartphone Doctor: Advances in mobile health empower patients and doctors

October 18, 2012

Joe McWilliams

Smartphone apps already fill the roles of TV remotes, home thermostats, and flashlights. They're also taking healthcare in directions unimaginable a few years ago. While simple apps that track personal fitness goals have already gained wide traction, medical professionals and entrepreneurs are increasingly keen to use them to help patients and consumers manage chronic ailments.

The strongest proponents of mobile health apps say that as they become increasingly personalized, mobile apps will become the ATMs of healthcare and that they'll transform our relationship with doctors. In particular, visits to doctors' offices will be less frequent, but doctors will actually be more informed. Leaders in the field, such as cardiologist and author Eric Topol, suggest that advances in mobile health will lead to the "creative destruction of medicine," ushering in a new era of improved healthcare delivery and innovation.

From a cost perspective, if smartphone-based systems can reduce the amount of other medical care that patients need, the potential benefit to the healthcare system would be significant. For example, the total cost of treating diabetes in 2007 was $174 billion, according to the CDC.

Certain mobile health apps soon may be paid for by insurance though medically prescribed apps from doctors. Happtique, a subsidiary of the business arm of the Greater New York Hospital Association, is creating a system to allow doctors to prescribe them. The company evaluates apps in several areas -- diabetes, cardiology, rheumatoid arthritis and physical therapy -- and allows doctors to prescribe apps to their patients from selected lists. It also monitors whether the patient has downloaded the app and can send reminders to those who haven't.

What can "Dr. Smartphone" do for you? Here's a sampling:

1. Help you sleep: Zeo Sleep Manager uses sensors in a wireless headband to detect patterns of light, deep, and REM sleep; a companion iOS or Android app then turns those data into graphs and an overall "sleep score."

2. Get you pregnant: DuoFertility Monitor uses sensors worn under the arm to monitor body temperature and identify a woman's peak fertility periods.

3. Correct your vision: EyeNetra helps people find their "refractive error" (used to determine an eyeglass prescription) by looking into an eyepiece and aligning patterns on their smartphone screens. Researchers at the MIT Media Lab are working on a plastic eyepiece, expected to cost a dollar, that snaps onto a mobile phone.

4. Take your blood pressure: Withings Blood Pressure Monitor plugs into an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, enabling patients to see their data and send it to doctors. Another company, iHealth, offers a wireless wrist cuff for Apple devices.

5. Monitor your heart rate: AliveCor mobile electrocardiogram (ECG) recorder snaps onto the back of your smartphone and, when held to your chest, conducts an ECG test of heart rhythm. Patients can share regular readings with their doctors and perhaps avoid unnecessary emergency room visits.

6. Examine your ears: CellScope uses a magnifying attachment that turns any smartphone camera into a mini-microscope, allowing users to capture high-res images of their outer and middle ears and email them to doctors for assessment.

7. Track your blood sugar: Sanofi-Aventis iBGStar is a blood glucose monitor roughly the size of a AA battery. A smartphone can track, analyze, and email data to care providers. The iBGStar blood glucose monitoring system attaches discreetly to the bottom of your iPhone or iPod Touch so you can carry it anywhere. Just slide a blood test strip into the device to take a reading.

8. Perform an ultrasound: MobiUS is the first ultrasound imaging system to work on smartphones. The software, made by MobiSante, could be used to confirm and track pregnancies, assess kidney disorders, and more. The images and video can be shared by email or USB.

9. Exercise for money: GymPact is an app that allows you to make money if you go to the gym as often as you say you will. Conversely, you lose money "“ it's charged to your credit card "“ if you don't. (The GPS on your smartphone tracks if you've checked in.)

10. Help you eat better and exercise more: HealtheMe, developed by Harvard-trained biomedical engineer Guy Rachmuth and obesity expert Sloan Rachmuth, delivers customized food and exercise plans and real-time advice over smartphones. The system can track sleep patterns, stress levels, blood pressure, and other metrics, and share the info with doctors.

The future of mobile health technology is exciting for everyone in the healthcare world. As new innovations become available for patients, consumers, and doctors, there is much promise to transform healthcare delivery by improving access, reducing costs, and empowering self-care.

Joe McWilliams is a healthcare strategy consultant and committed supporter of a smarter, more efficient healthcare system. He currently works in strategy and marketing at Philips Healthcare, where he is focused on the identification and development of new business models for next-generation healthcare applications. Prior to Philips, Joe worked at Scientia Advisors, a healthcare strategy consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. He has also worked as a consultant at Accenture and in business development and licensing at Partners Healthcare Research Ventures and Licensing, the technology transfer arm of Partners Healthcare responsible for investing in novel technologies from Massachusetts General Hospital.

Originally published Oct 18, 2012 10:00:27 AM.