We love our smartphones. Probably too much. It’s hard for me to roam around my house, never mind leave, without my smartphone. We rely on them for a wide range of functions, from email and internet access to banking and restaurant reviews. But now a new era is here, and our smartphones are used as medical devices to diagnose and monitor patients. How? Is using smartphones as medical devices a good idea?
As smartphone technology improves, patients increasingly use their smartphones as diagnostic tools and for medical assessments. And doctors and other health professionals increasingly use smartphones in their practices.
To clear up any potential confusion, this article refers to the use smartphones as, or with, a medical device, not healthcare apps in a general sense. Additionally, for ease of reading, when I use the term doctor, I am referring to all healthcare professionals.
Although this list will undoubtedly continuously expand, below are 7 ways smartphones are currently used as, or with, medical devices.
We’re all familiar with the stethoscope, used by doctors to listen to our heart and our breathing to learn about our lung and heart function. Now, many doctors and patients use smartphones to enhance the power of the stethoscope. How? A smartphone-based amplifying device replaces the traditional stethoscope earpieces. Additionally, several companies make high-tech devices for listening to a patient’s heart and breathing that partner with smartphone apps to receive, review and store each patient’s results.
Furthermore, a team at the University of Queensland, developed ResApp, a platform for the diagnosis and management of respiratory disease that only requires the patient to cough and/or breath near the phone’s microphone. No physical contact required. ResApp’s new technology can “diagnose and measure the severity of a wide range of chronic and acute diseases such as pneumonia, asthma, bronchiolitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).”
Why is this an improvement? Not only does it make it easy for patients to monitor their health at home, this technology provides “significantly more information than the sounds picked up by a stethoscope.” And the process is automated with no need for human interpretation of respiratory sounds.
ECGs (also referred to as EKGs) measure the electrical activity of the heartbeat. Traditional ECG machines are about the size of a laptop computer and require the attachment of as many as 12 leads (wires) to the patient’s body. Now, smart watches can take crude ECG readings, although the medical community does not agree on the accuracy and effectiveness of these recordings. However, smartphone apps which require the connection of as few as 4 leads provide better ECG recordings. And their straightforward design makes it is easy for most patients and caregivers to learn how to operate these devices.
Additionally, there are new, smaller ECG machines that connect wirelessly to a smartphone and allow patients to get an ECG reading by touching their fingers to the machine.
EEG devices measure the electrical activity of the brain. Doctors use them for a variety of reasons, including diagnosing and monitoring epilepsy patients. With traditional EEG devices, patients had to go to EEG centers where technicians glue leads to their scalp. However, smartphone technology has made this process easier. Now patients can monitor themselves at home and send the data to their doctor electronically. Recent research shows that this new method could make EEG scans available to millions of epilepsy patients who now have limited access to EEG centers.
Imaging is an important diagnostic tool for a variety of medical conditions. And device companies are starting to use smartphones as part of their imaging products. For instance, Butterfly Network sells a portable ultrasound machine that connects to an iPhone. Not only is it significantly smaller than traditional ultrasound machines, it is also much less expensive.
Doctors use otoscopes to look inside ears, usually to screen for illness and/or to investigate ear symptoms. The traditional otoscope is a bit tricky to use and often only gives the doctor a quick glimpse of the eardrum. Now, doctors and patients can use a smartphone attachment to get a high-resolution magnified photo of the eardrum. As a result, patients, or parents of children, can take these photos at home and send them to their doctor for a consult.
Doctors use ophthalmoscopes to inspect the retina and other parts of the eye. There are now smartphone attachments, with corresponding apps, that produce images almost as good as those an eye doctor gets with an ophthalmoscope. However, it is unlikely patients will use these at home because these kinds of tests often require a dilation of the eye, which should only be done by a trained professional.
On the other hand, smartphones can provide life-changing eye screening for those in rural areas with no access to eye care. For example, a team of developers, engineers and ophthalmologists created smartphone-based tests to replace standard eye testing equipment, creating a tool that is portable and easy to use with a bit of training. This development holds great promise for the many thousands who are unnecessarily blinded by preventable or treatable diseases due to a lack of eye care in difficult to reach areas throughout the world.
Lastly, smartphone apps that perform vision exams can help people know when it’s time for a new prescription for eyeglasses. Or at the very least, time for a visit to the eye doctor.
Many patients with serious illnesses can benefit from periodic or continuous monitoring of their condition. Smartphone apps and attachments can make it easier for patients to stay on top of their health from home. Apps monitor many conditions, including blood glucose levels and real-time heart function. And these devices and apps can significantly help patients and doctors. For instance, one study found that a smartphone app helped patients with diabetes and uncontrolled high blood pressure significantly reduce their blood pressure within six weeks.
Sometimes smartphones devices fall short.
Just because something is high-tech with a well-designed user interface, doesn’t mean it’s better. There is no guarantee that an app, and any associated hardware, will deliver better results than traditional methods. Remember, new is not always better. For example, several smartphone apps allow people to scan skin lesions at home to learn if they might have melanoma. Recent research, that evaluated five smartphone apps that use artificial intelligence‐based analysis to evaluate skin lesions, found the apps are not sufficiently accurate, with a high likelihood of missed melanomas.
Talk to your doctor before proceeding!
Thinking about using your phone for self-diagnosis or to monitor a health condition? I urge you to discuss your intentions with your doctor before you start. Why? It’s important to have your doctor’s perspective and experience guiding your use of your smartphone as a medical device. You may need help from to ensure you understand how to properly use the device and app. Or you might need your doctor’s involvement for interpreting your results and/or determining appropriate next steps. For instance, only trained doctors should read and interpret tests such as ECGs and EEGs.
And using your phone as, or with, a medical device, should enhance your care, not detract from it. Your smartphone should never replace your doctor!
To learn more about getting the most out of your medical care, read these blog posts:
- 10 Tips to Communicate Better with Doctors.
- How Can You Get the Best Healthcare? Actively Participate!
- Being an Engaged Patient Can Help You Get the Best Medical Care Possible.