Over the past decade, smartphones have changed many aspects of our everyday lives, from banking to shopping to entertainment. Medicine is next. The patient, are about to take center stage for the first time.
With the smartphone revolution, an increasingly powerful new set of tools—from attachments that can diagnose an ear infection or track heart rhythms to an app that can monitor mental health—can reduce our use of doctors, cut costs, speed up the pace of care and give more power to patients. Digital avatars won’t replace physicians: You will still be seeing doctors, but the relationship will ultimately be radically altered.
This transformation is already under way.
- Diagnosis and treatment of skin rashes
- Diagnose ear infections and recommend treatments;
- Blood pressure readings and ECG’s;
- Estimate the costs of medical procedures, tests, scans and other types of care;
- Facilitate video consultations with physicians at the same cost of a typical copayment 24 hours per day;
- Track individuals’ heart rhythms; and
- Monitor patients’ mental health.
You can obtain on demand secure video consultation with a doctor via smartphone at the same cost (about $30-$40) as the typical copay charge through employer health plans.
Now a smartphone can generate your own medical data, including measuring your blood-oxygen and glucose levels, blood pressure and heart rhythm. A smartphone attachment will let you perform an easy eardrum exam that can rapidly diagnose the problem without a trip to the pediatrician.
Other wearable sensor tools for the future include necklaces that monitor your heart function and check the amount of fluid in your lungs, contact lenses that can track your glucose levels or your eye pressure (to help manage glaucoma), and head bands that can capture your brain waves. Even gait monitoring for Parkinson’s is on the way.
Smartphones to monitor your exposure to radiation, air pollution or pesticides in foods will be available. And your medications could soon be digitized to provide you with reminders to ensure that you’ve taken them as prescribed.
It isn’t just hospitals’ rooms that are on their way out; so are their labs. Smartphone attachments will soon enable you to perform an array of routine lab tests via your phone. Blood electrolytes; liver, kidney and thyroid function; analysis of breath, sweat and urine—all can be checked with small fluid samples in little labs that plug directly into smartphones. And you can do your own routine labs at a fraction of the current cost.
Smartphone selfies are all the rage, but smartphone physical exams are just taking off. The ability to make a definitive DIY diagnosis of an ear infection with a phone is just the first step. Apps are now being developed to handle all aspects of the eye, the throat and oral cavity, and the lungs and heart. Meanwhile, nearly all sophisticated medical imaging devices are being miniaturized: Hand-held ultrasound devices are already available, and some medical schools have begun issuing them in the place of the old-school stethoscope. Hand-held MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines aren’t far behind, and engineers at UCLA have come up with a smartphone-sized device that can generate X-rays. It won’t be long before you can take a smartphone X-ray selfie if you’re worried that you might have broken a bone.
In the near future you will be able to place nanosensors in your bloodstream. These microscopic sensors will be able to keep your blood under constant surveillance for the first appearance of cancer, autoimmune attacks on vital tissues or the tiny cracks in artery walls that can lead to heart attacks or strokes.
Big changes can be expected in mental health, which is also the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and many other developed countries. Smartphones can be particularly helpful here. New apps aim to quantify your state of mind by a composite of real-time data: tone and inflection of voice, facial expression, breathing pattern, heart rate, galvanic skin response, blood pressure, even the frequency and content of your emails and texts.
Just as the printing press democratized information, the medicalized smartphone will democratize health care. Anywhere you can get a mobile signal, you’ll have new ways to practice data-driven medicine. Patients won’t just be empowered; they’ll be emancipated.