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Digital Health — 12 min

The smartphone revolution: 5 innovations to benefit your health

July 3rd, 2019
Roger Simard
Advisor, Digital Health and Pharmacist

Since 1985, our era has been characterized by the information revolution, driven by the internet and digital media. This revolution, like previous ones, has a profound impact on almost every facet of human activity. What is most remarkable, however, is the speed with which innovation is adopted. While we had to wait 36 years to see the wireline telephone adopted by a quarter of the population in the United States, it only took seven years for the internet, and two years for the smartphone, to reach the same percentage of usage.

The case of the smartphone is particularly interesting because, although we call it a “phone,” this device is used less and less for voice communications with the outside world. Whether we’re text messaging, using the GPS, storing and listening to our music, or making use of an extremely developed mobile app ecosystem, the smartphone has become an appendage, an extension of ourselves, on which we have become very dependent. It has replaced our camera, MP3 player, GPS in the car, and quite a few other devices[1]. One of the most surprising uses, however, is probably one currently popular in the health care industry. Yes, this technological marvel we call a “phone” will likely continue to amaze!

ECG to go

The power of the smartphone, the improvement of its microphone and the precision of its camera are all features that allow manufacturers to further push the limits of how we diagnose medical conditions, share information from a medical file and even treat certain health problems.

For example, consider atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heart rhythm. Four years ago, AliveCor, an American start-up, launched a device (photo) that was highly accurate at detecting atrial fibrillation, an arrhythmia that can cause a stroke, heart attack or pulmonary embolism. Since atrial fibrillation can be asymptomatic (i.e. no symptoms are felt), it’s possible to have it without knowing it. By placing a finger on each side of the device, you see the results through the Kardia app, which can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play to your smartphone.

Thirty seconds later, this same app indicates whether the result is positive or negative and can help detect a medically treatable health problem.

Already revolutionary four years ago, this device evolved into an electrode embedded into the Apple Watch wristband, then raised eyebrows when it was integrated into the Apple Watch itself prior to the August 2018 Keynote presentation and marketed in the days that followed. Since screening for atrial fibrillation can’t be taken lightly, these applications and devices must be approved by regulatory agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration in the United States and Health Canada in Canada. This step is crucial to ensure that they’re taken seriously by health care professionals.

So, an electrocardiogram, which, until the appearance of these devices, had to be performed using a bulky machine that was installed by a specialized technician, has become a new feature on a wristwatch.

Detecting a melanoma with a smartphone flashlight

Another example of a smartphone’s versatility is its capability to transform itself into an otoscope, an ophthalmoscope or a dermatoscope.

Devices such as Oto by Cellscope, D-EYE or MoleScope can be attached to a phone and used with its flashlight to examine the inside of the ears, perform an eye test or detect a melanoma.

What’s most fascinating about these technologies, however, is the possibility of combining images or videos made with these accessories and using artificial intelligence to establish an extremely reliable diagnosis. The first artificial intelligence application approved by the FDA in the United States in September 2018 concerns the diagnosis of retinopathy, one of the complications of diabetes. This opens up the possibility of performing this test in a very large number of locations without the need for the sophisticated equipment normally used by ophthalmologists.

Diagnosing pneumonia in babies … and soon lung and cardiovascular diseases

Another interesting aspect of the smartphone is the use of its original components, such as the microphone, for diagnostic purposes:

Australian company ResApp Health used the sound produced by a baby’s cough to diagnose pneumonia in locations where access to medical resources is limited[2].

Other groups have demonstrated that a voice can be used to diagnose heart disease[3].Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa and others will very soon become powerful allies in the diagnosis of lung and cardiovascular disease.

Finally, a home test to detect a urinary tract infection!

Are you at home and wondering whether you have a urinary tract infection? If so, you can now use strips manufactured by inui Health to perform five different tests and use your smartphone as a laboratory to get a diagnosis[4]. And this is just the beginning ….

Consult your health care professional without leaving your home

It was only a matter of time before we would be able to use our smartphone to talk to and see our doctor, psychologist or coach. There are countless secure platforms that allow patients to consult health care professionals when it’s convenient, without having to travel.

It’s easy to imagine all the possibilities that telehealth will offer, especially when combined with the devices described above.

What’s more, thanks to Bluetooth technology, it’s possible to link a blood pressure monitor, blood glucose meter and scale to a smartphone, allowing remote monitoring of people with chronic conditions. Once biometric parameters (i.e. blood pressure, blood sugar and weight) are recorded on a client’s phone, health care professionals can easily access them by synchronizing the information to a mobile dashboard that allows several people to be tracked at the same time.

What’s on the horizon?

Another tool available in smartphones, the accelerometer, which measures the speed at which we walk, run or drive, is extremely useful for monitoring and adjusting therapeutic effects in people with Parkinson’s disease. The accuracy of an accelerometer makes it possible to characterize the tremors associated with the disease and evaluate the effectiveness of the medications used to control them.

Where the use of the smartphone takes on a deeper meaning, however, is when the number of words used in your text messages, the speed at which you type them, the sound of your voice, your physical activity and other factors are analyzed and interpreted to create your “digital phenotype.” It can be considered a type of unique signature that will allow caregivers to assess your mental and physical health, accurately predict events to come or recommend appropriate behaviours. Pipe dream? Several companies are already working in this area[5].

It’s therefore to be expected that in the near future, not only will our smartphone appear to us as indispensable, it will truly become so.

  1. OpinionWay pour Volpy, Les objets remplacés par les smartphones [PowerPoint en ligne], avril 2017, Paris. [https://www.grazia.fr/lifestyle/high-tech/le-top-10-des-objets-qui-ont-ete-remplaces-par-nos-smartphones-869703] (accessed June 3, 2019).
  2. ResApp Health, ResApp Announces Positive Top-line Results from Australian Prospective Paediatric Clinical Study [communiqué en ligne], 3 septembre 2018, Brisbane. [https://www.resapphealth.com.au/resapp-announces-positive-top-line-results-from-australian-prospective-paediatric-clinical-study/] (accessed June 3, 2019).
  3. Elad, Maor et coll., « Voice Signal Characteristics Are Independently Associated With Coronary Artery Disease » [article en ligne], Mayo Clinic Proceedings, juillet 2018, vol. 93, no 7, p. 840-847. [https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(18)30030-2/abstract] (accessed June 3, 2019).
  4. Comstock, Jonah, « Inui Health, formerly Scanadu, announces FDA-cleared home urine testing platform » [article en ligne], MobiHealthNews, 18 septembre 2018, Boston. [https://www.mobihealthnews.com/content/inui-health-formerly-scanadu-announces-fda-cleared-home-urine-testing-platform] (accessed June 3, 2019).
  5. Piller, Charles, « We touch our phones 4,000 times a day. Can this behavior predict mental illness? » [article en ligne], STAT, 7 août 2017, San Francisco. [https://www.statnews.com/2017/08/07/mindstrong-insel-mental-illness/] (accessed June 3, 2019).

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