Smartphones, Paving the Way for Healthcare’s Future (Part 1 of 2): The Plug-In Physical

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With Star Trek Into Darkness blowing up the box office this past weekend, it seems only appropriate that we delve into some Trek-inspired technology–the smartphone–and its impact on healthcare.

Lauran Neergaard, a medical writer for the Associated Press, reports, “…By hooking a variety of gadgets onto a smartphone you could almost get a complete physical — without the paper gown or even a visit to the doctor’s office.”

For blood pressure, all you would have to do is “plug the arm cuff into the phone for a quick reading”; for the heart, “put your fingers in the right spot, and the squiggly rhythm of an EKG appears on the phone’s screen.”

Beyond the blood and the heart, “plug in a few more devices and you could have photos of your eardrum…and the back of your eye, listen to your heartbeat, chart your lung function, even get a sonogram.”

As Mr. Spock might say, “Fascinating.”

Your first fear as healthcare professionals might be that this is self-diagnosis, but the companies developing the technology say they’re looking to provide ways to help people better monitor their health through “miniature medical devices that tap the power of the ubiquitous smartphones.”

To find out the effects of this technology, the University of California, San Francisco, is conducting a Health eHeart Study “to see whether using mobile technology, including smartphone tracking of people’s heart rate and blood pressure, could help treat and prevent cardiovascular disease,” by asking the question, “Do smartphone devices really work well enough for the average patient and primary-care doctor to dive in, or are early adopters just going for the cool factor?”

If it’s just the “cool factor,” then it’s a costly cool with tools averaging between $100 and $200 in cost. As UCSF’s chancellor, Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann, put it, “‘How does mobile monitoring become something more than a toy or something interesting? How does it connect to how I’m cared for by my caregiver?’’

Furthermore, how will insurers handle these devices? The healthcare industry “estimates that 500 million smartphone users worldwide will use some type of health app by 2015,” with apps being available over-the-counter or by a doctor’s prescription or even at the Apple store.

Doctors aren’t necessarily skeptical of this technology. They’re just concerned about how it will be used.

Dr. Glen Stream of the American Academy of Family Physicians observed, ‘‘Technology sometimes evolves faster than we’re ready for it. We’re recognizing more and more that not all care needs to be delivered face to face.” However, he told Neergaard, this will only be beneficial “if people measure the right things and have a relationship with a doctor to help make good use of the findings.”

The implications of these devices are staggering and the possibilities are endless. In our next posting, we’ll examine a few of these factors and look at some of the specific technology being offered.

-by Pete Fernbaugh

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