Innovative new applications are turning our smartphones into mobile medical centers that can be used by anyone with a Wi-Fi connection.
Some doctors are using apps to test liver and kidney function, diagnose infections and conduct DNA sequencing. All of these complicated procedures are enabled by simple attachments that plug into your phone, like a pair of headphones or a charger.
The rapid transformation of smartphones into doctors promises to reshape healthcare infrastructure, taking the burden away from the limited number of humans who can deliver care to those in need.
Visit Innovation Enterprise's Big Data & Analytics in Healthcare Summit in San Francisco on October 15-16, 2018.
Lowering care access barriers
With a rapidly aging global population and squeezed healthcare budgets, many elderly people are struggling to access care. Apps will increase the accessibility of care, with services being performed or arranged via smartphones. This will empower patients to manage their own conditions, such as diabetes, via monitoring outside of hospitals or clinical settings. The devices will be simple enough for virtually any consumer to use anywhere.
Enabling preventive monitoring
Phones will store our medical records and monitor our conditions, diet and fitness. Keeping a record of our lifestyle and environment, apps can reliably inform us of ways to manage our health.
A smartphone app can detect a problem as it occurs – ranging from a minor one, like a cold or flu, to the more serious signs of a high blood pressure. It can then recommend steps to address the root cause or refer us to a doctor.
Detecting problems early can free up capacity in emergency rooms, which are already understaffed and oversubscribed. For example, the UK’s National Health Service will alone face a funding gap of up to £22 ($29.1bn) by 2022-23.
Uplifting health through data
Data is key to the mobile health revolution. Apps will absorb, store and analyze the information on our health conditions and lifestyles, often using artificial intelligence algorithms and help doctors spot trends in the population. This could help to predict and prevent problems before they occur, thus dramatically improving healthcare.
Technology can also speed up diagnoses. Apps can crunch data – say, on your heartbeat to detect a problem such as atrial fibrillation – to spot patterns and return tests in minutes rather than days or even weeks it may take to see a doctor and get a test done.
Privacy and security concerns are still acute
The rise in data collection and storage raises huge privacy concerns that healthcare providers will need to address before the health app revolution truly takes off.
Popular apps such as MapMyRun, which people use to track their exercise regimes, can transmit data to several companies. Back in 2013, a study conducted by Privacy Rights Clearinghouse found that there were “considerable privacy risks” that were often not detailed in privacy policies.
“Consumers should not assume any of their data are private in the mobile app environment – even health data that they consider sensitive,” the report said.
For example, data that you submit into an app to track your health could be gathered by a large insurance company, who might then use that data to set its policy premiums.
Health app data can also be used by advertising machines to market products based on your health conditions. For instance, if you record in an app that you get headaches after long runs, you could be sent adverts for pain relief drugs just before you set off on your runs.
When it comes to security, more concerns ensue. Medical records have already been breached by cybercriminals. A survey by KPMG found that 81% of healthcare organizations have admitted their systems have been attacked. For example, at least 7,000 people’s medical records were compromised in a recent data breach at the Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center in New York. The records disclosed patients’ mental health, HIV status, sexual assault and domestic violence reports.
Diagnostic benefits offset downsides
However, the benefits may far outweigh the downsides. Researchers from the University of Buffalo found that a $99 smartphone add-on made by AliveCor to spot heart palpitations was as accurate as the gold-standard Holter monitor, which is more expensive and bulky. It can be used by healthcare providers as a first-line diagnostic ECG (electrocardiogram, used to check heart rhythm).
In addition, smart startups have emerged to offer medical tests including eardrum inspections and haemoglobin examinations. One of the most innovative gadgets includes CliniCloud, a microphone that connects to a smartphone to turn it into a digital stethoscope, which doctors use to listen to internal bodily sounds, including lung and heart function.
Meanwhile, Cupris Health offers a clinical-grade otoscope that plugs into a phone and can take high-resolution images of the inside of ears, and transmit them digitally via the cloud to a doctor or nurse who can assess the images for signs of infection.
The key benefit to consumers and companies is that the devices are cheaper and more easily accessible, often resulting in faster diagnoses. Sometimes, diseases can hide undetected for months on end, which can cause serious long-term health problems. However, with diagnostic apps, healthcare providers can save money on the tests, which can be done by consumers at home, and treat the conditions more quickly.
For health apps to become more widespread, kinks will need to be ironed out, chiefly the privacy concerns. Health records contain sensitive details about patients, including any history for alcohol or drug abuse, sexually transmitted diseases or abortions. These records are permanent and cannot be altered, and many people may not wish to reveal them to anyone else.
But as long as measures are taken to prevent attacks and mitigate risks, health apps promise to transform the healthcare system, making care cheaper and more accessible to the masses, which can only result in positive outcomes.