Smartphones will soon become mobile laboratories which can monitor bone density, calculate red blood cell levels and even predict if an asthma attack is imminent.
Scientists are repurposing the technology which already exists within phones, such as accelerometers, camera flashes and microphones to use as medical tools.
Professor Shwetak Patel, of the University of Washington is currently devising an app which can detect red blood cell levels simply by placing a finger over the camera and flash, so that a bright beam of light shines through the skin. Such a blood screening tool could quickly spot anaemia.
He also believes that in future users will be able to bang phones against their bones to check for osteoporosis and use the microphone to test lung function.
Speaking at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston, Prof Patel said: “If you think about the capabilities on a mobile device, if you look at the camera, the flash, the microphone, those are all getting better and better.
“Those sensors on the mobile phone can actually be repurposed in interesting new ways where you can use those for diagnosing certain kinds of diseases.
“You can do pulmonary assessment using the microphone on a mobile device, for diagnosing asthma. If think about people having an asthma attack, if you could monitor their lung function at home you can actually get in front of that, before somebody has an asthma attack.”
Motion sensors can also be repurposed. A new app in development by the University of Washington would allow someone to tap their elbow on their phone to create a frequency response.
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“If you think about the arm is just a rigid surface and if there is a hollowing of the bone or a reduction in density which is osteoporosis, that frequency changes,” added Prof Patel. “It’s like taking a pitchfork and you hitting it and it has some frequency and pitch to it and if you were to hollow it out that frequency changes.
“You can start to do remote disease management outside of the clinic. This could really change how we diagnose and screen diseases. Now the patient is empowered to be able to collect this data.”
Beth Mynatt, of Georgia Institute of Technology, has also been working on using smartphones and computers to help support patients who are dealing with chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer. She has helped develop apps which remind people to attend appointments, or tell them which symptoms to expect on specific days after chemotherapy.
“Our tools become a personal support system,” she said. “Breast cancer patients are given a personal computer and it has all of the information about their diagnoses and treatment inuputted into that system.
“So previously they would have been given pamphlets now they have a day-to-day support system which says ‘you have surgery coming up in two weeks, here are the ways you might want to prepare.
“It might warn people that they are going to feel lousy after chemo so they should organise childcare.”