Developing Medical Smartphone Technology

The increasingly capable doctor in your pocket

In 2014, an internal population report found that over 32 million people living in the US had no health insurance. Those in need of medical care are often discouraged by the high cost of private services, and this problem isn’t just confined to the US. Data gathered by the New York State Department of Health lists 32 nations that provide universal healthcare, which is only around a sixth of all global countries. Even where there are established national health systems, patients are plagued by extensive waiting periods, understaffed facilities and insufficient funding. The way to solve these problems is to provide quality, inexpensive medical solutions to a mass audience. Although this sounds like an impossible task, the answer is quite literally staring us in the face.

Power to the patient
When we get sick, we turn to the somewhat macabre wisdom of Google. More often than not, it seems the search engine informs us that we probably have a fatal disease. Common sense dictates that this isn’t usually the case, but it’s easy to see the effect on people of relying on the internet for advice instead of seeing a doctor or nurse. Waiting times, cost, and even scepticism towards the conclusions of medical staff can affect a person’s likelihood to arrange an appointment. In an attempt to give patients more power over their own health, various companies are developing mobile apps for personal health management. These can be instantly accessed by those who can’t or don’t want to rely on traditional health infrastructure.

So, what medical help can our smartphones provide? Taking blood pressure readings, performing electrocardiograms and live streaming consultations are just a few of the services already available. The ability to access in depth, mobile health monitors is clearly a revelation, especially for those suffering with chronic conditions. Mobile compatible technology isn’t all about downloading apps, though. Earlier this year, a team at the University of Illinois developed an external dock that equips smartphones with the ability to analyse blood, saliva and urine. Whilst the analyser costs far less than other medical grade devices, it’s unlikely to attract the everyday consumer with a price tag of $550. Either way, with so many different services available, your smartphone could easily become a Swiss Army Knife for managing personal health.

How disruptive are medically enabled personal devices?
Hopefully, an increase in mobile compatible services will mean less strain on existing public and private healthcare organisations. In countries without universal healthcare, this is all the more important. Ironically, though, this could also be detrimental to traditional companies and organisations by discouraging patients to use their services. Even so, it goes without saying that a smartphone can’t perform a complicated operation or tactfully deliver a life impeding diagnosis. Medicalised mobile technology is unlikely to ever replace human staff and physical facilities, but what it will do is make people more knowledgeable. Consequently, this will affect the level of treatment they expect to receive. On the one hand, this could impede incumbent processes by creating friction between patients and professionals. On the other hand, it could help to streamline existing systems. What is almost certain is that partnerships will spring up between new companies and legacy organisations. The UK’s National Health Service, for example, has recently teamed up with Cera. The startup has developed an app for patient management that can organise one person’s care within 24 hours. In traditional care agencies, this can take weeks. In future, other national services may well look to startups for positively disruptive, mobile software. However, the continued adoption of medicalised smartphones depends on whether the smartphone can survive the coming era of human augmentation.

When traditional healthcare services are unavailable, medicalised smartphones could be the next best thing. There are plenty of apps already available to give patients more control of their own health, informing them about their personal medical data and expanding common medical knowledge. However, no matter how many apps tell you that you’ve got a chest infection, the diagnosis of someone who has been trained for years will always be viewed as more reliable. As more innovative startups create medical grade software and services, it looks like doctors themselves will become the second opinion.

Will our personal devices replace initial consultations? How will private and public healthcare companies respond to the adoption of medicalised smartphones? Can patients ever trust mobile based advice as much as human professionals? Comment below with your thoughts.