Smartphones could play a major role in tomorrow's health services
Smartphones could play a major role in tomorrow's health services
Marc Gozlan

PARIS - It has a camera, a video camera, a microphone, a library, a photo and music album. The smartphone is a technological smorgasbord.

Add some apps and your smartphone turns into a GPS, a torchlight, a magnifying glass. Even better, connected to a wireless network, it allows you to surf the web, send texts, emails and of course, make phone calls.

What you may not know, is that its place at the center of today’s telecommunications, the smartphone could also play a major role in tomorrow’s health services.

“With wireless networks, Internet, connectivity, bandwidth capacities, the huge popularity of smartphones, cloud computing – capable of storing enormous volumes of data – we have a convergence of tools that can be applied to medicine,” explains Professor Eric Topol, a cardiologist specialized in genomics and director of the Scripps Transnational Science Institute in La Jolla, California. “We are in the middle of a digital revolution that will shake the world of medicine.”

Topol notes that there are six billion cell phones in the world. "That’s more than toothbrushes or toilets,” he says. The current one billion smartphones is expected to double before 2015.

Several innovative devices are already on the market in the United States. California-based company AliveCor has launched a mobile heart monitor that only requires an app and a smartphone case equipped with two electrodes. The patient presses two fingers on the electrodes, or lays the phone flat on his chest and the phone sends the electrocardiogram wirelessly to a cloud, where his doctor can access it remotely any time. The recording can last 30 seconds, from one to five minutes or be continuous.

This invention, which will cost $199, was approved by the FDA in Dec. 2012 and has also obtained European approval. AliveCor encourages physicians to prescribe this device to their cardiac patients, who could use it every time they feel faint or have palpitations and then send their electrocardiograms to them via email.

Will General Electric Healthcare’s pocketsize Vscan portable ultrasound scanner be able to replace a doctor with a good old stethoscope? No question, says Eric Topol, who headed the cardiovascular department at the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio, for 14 years. He says he “hasn’t used a stethoscope for three years” – since ultraportable ultrasound scanners became available. The Vscan is specially adapted to abdominal, obstetric and cardiac imaging.

The device offers black and white imaging but it also includes a real-time color blood flow Doppler. It costs $7,900, as opposed to $30,000 for standard scanners.

A diagnosis tool or for health monitoring

Vscan's competitor is the ultrasound system developed by Mobisante, from Redmond, Washington. It costs $7,500 and was approved by the FDA early 2011. It has a probe that is linked wirelessly to a smartphone, which could prove handy in rural zones and developing countries.

In Aug. 2012, the FDA also approved Californian company Sotera Wireless’ ViSi Mobile system. The small device, which is attached to a patient’s wrist, measures a huge array of vital signs. This data is then transmitted to the physician’s tablet or smartphone. Whether he is in hospital or at home, the patient can be monitored as closely as if he was in intensive care.

CellScope is a mobile microscope start-up based in San Francisco, California. Its new invention turns smartphones into an otoscope – the device used by doctors to look inside your ears and throat. An otoscope attached to the phone’s camera makes it possible to examine the eardrum. Approved by the FDA, the mobile otoscope enables the parents to take photos of their children’s ears and send them to their pediatrician, reducing the number of consultations while enabling the long-distance diagnosis of ear infections.

The company also developed a cellphone microscope that enables health workers to test for tuberculosis in remote places.

LifeWatch V, the first mass-market healthcare smartphone was launched in Israel in July 2012. Just put your fingers on the sensors and the device measures your electro cardiogram, heart rate, glucose level and blood oxygen saturation. The device, which works on Android phones, can also measure body fat percentage and stress levels. It also uses an infrared sensor, to check your body temperature. It includes a whole array of features, some of which to monitor nutrition, or to remind people when to take their medicine.

The device is marketed to people working toward a healthier lifestyle or who suffer from chronic illnesses that require regular monitoring, like hypertension or diabetes. It has been approved in Europe and is awaiting FDA approval. Its price is $600 and it is available in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Smartphones can also be used to test saliva for the flu or streptococcus or as a microscope to help diagnose HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and anemia.

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