Rise of self-diagnostics: Your smartphone can be as smart as your doctor


More than 30 per cent of Indians lack access to basic healthcare services. Rural India has less than one doctor for every 5,000 citizens. This number is 80 per cent below the bare minimum recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

It’s a norm for people to travel more than 50km to access basic diagnostic facilities and medicines. Government infrastructure in healthcare is under severe need of a revamp. But it is not going to happen over-night. So, is there a way we can leverage technology and provide healthcare facilities to the under-served using the current infrastructure?

The lack of access to doctors can be solved by video consultations coupled with apps and wearable devices that measure basic indicators like heart rate, blood pressure, and sugar etc. This data would then be sent to the doctor in real time. But what happens when the doctor prescribes an advanced set of tests for better diagnosis? Where can a patient find the diagnostic facilities to undergo these tests?

Around five years ago, when my uncle first brought home a‘diabetic check’ machine to regularly monitor his blood sugar levels, everyone at home was floored by the possibilities. We took turns to check our sugar levels. It seemed fun. What was previously a tedious half-a-day long process now took less than a minute. My mom’s sugar levels were just on the border, so we consulted our family doctor. We were informed she was “pre-biabetic,” which remedied with proper care and regular exercise.The device has immensely benefited my uncle, who can now regularly monitor his glucose levels with cost-efficiency.

Smartphones today have more computing power than what most computers had five years ago. Coupled with the kind of penetration these hand-held devices enjoy, they have the potential to revolutionise diagnostics. Scientists and innovators around the world are working tirelessly to harness this vast “man-made resource” to create apps and devices, which, when combined with your phone, may have the potential to put modern-day diagnostic centres to shame in terms of speed and accuracy.

As it stands, we may be closer to this future than we realise

Senseonics is developing a continuous glucose monitoring system with three major components: an implanted sensor, a wireless transmitter that communicates with the sensor and a mobile medical app. With this device, a diabetes patient’s glucose levels could be measured remotely every few minutes, and accurate and specific alerts would be sent to both the user and the physician about impending hyperglycaemia or hypoglycaemia.

Another example is ‘Smarthaler,’ a concept system Sagentia recently developed for asthma patients. It uses a novel acoustic detection technology, together with a cloud-based server and mobile app, to monitor and interpret whether a patient is administering doses properly. The system warns the patient when a dose is taken incorrectly and coaches the patient to improve dosing technique. It provides the doctor with a historic record of treatment adherence to determine the context of an asthma attack and options for improved treatment going forward.

Opko Diagnostics created ripples a couple of years back when it claimed to be able to detect syphilis and HIV using a hand-held device in less than 15 minutes for less than 1$. They’re currently working to expand their technology to facilitate testing for prostrate cancer, Alzheimer's and Vitamin D deficiency.

Another study entailed connecting a single-lead ECG to a smartphone to diagnose and follow treatment with sleep apnoea, providing a possible alternative to costly and labour-intensive polysomnography.

"Mobile apps have the potential to transform healthcare by allowing doctors to diagnose patients with potentially life-threatening conditions outside the traditional health care settings, help consumers manage their own health and wellness, and also gain access to useful information whenever and wherever they need it," said Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA's medical device center.

Cameras in smartphones will inevitably replace nearly all portable cameras and camcorders, but could they also make basic medical instruments obsolete?

A magnifying ball lens (on top of your smartphone camera lens) can reveal signs of iron deficiency (anaemia), or the deformed red blood cells as seen in sickle cell anaemia. Larger lenses could even help diagnose skin diseases, better software might count and identify blood cells for a wider range of diseases.

By swapping in a spectrometer for the lens, researchers can also use iPhones to measure the amount of oxygen in blood and diagnose diseases based on their chemical markers.

A startup called CellScope plans to turn your smartphones into digital first aid kits. It’s developing an iPhone attachment that turns the smartphone into an otoscope, providing a magnified view of the middle ear. The peripheral attaches to the top of an iPhone and provides a 10x magnification. Using CellScope’s web platform, users can upload captured images and paediatricians can remotely assess the severity of the infection.

But what about the lack of internet in most rural areas? How can mobile phones there help provide better healthcare?

“TREAT with AL* all children under 5yrs weighing >=5kg coming with FEVER for first visit & without severe signs. Quote: "Opportunity seldom knocks twice"

(*Artemether-lumefantrine, the recommended anti-malarial)

Messages like the above are sent by the Health Ministry in Kenya every Tuesday morning to more than 15,000 health workers throughout Kenya, who then provide accurate treatment to the masses. The Kenyan government realises that there is a severe lack in basic healthcare services and is using mobile messages to spread awareness. Initiatives like the above have been found to improve the quality of treatment by 25 per cent.The Government of Tanzania runs a similar successful initiative for promoting healthy pregnancy and healthy motherhood.

Professor Bob W Snow, who heads the research group in Nairobi, says: "The role of the mobile phone in improving health providers' performance, health service management and patient adherence to new medicines across much of Africa has a huge potential to engage and promote health to many people, who despite being poor and often inaccessible nevertheless have access to cell phone communication."

A growing number of companies are developing complex apps and attachments that perform tests and other functions once reserved for the doctor's office. While the idea is not to remove the doctor entirely, it can act as an assistant, so doctors can focus their resources on the most critical part in the treatment cycle: the ones that cannot be solved by your smartphone, yet.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory)