Smartphone apps can eventually save us billions in health care costs

Feb 11, 2011
Health

Apps just might be able to cure health care. One major barrier to health care reform is the costly, age-old practice of making patients physically visit a doctor for everything from a hypertension screening to a follow-up visit to see if an injury is healing. Smartphone apps could change that. The industry is seeing some […]

Apps just might be able to cure health care.

One major barrier to health care reform is the costly, age-old practice of making patients physically visit a doctor for everything from a hypertension screening to a follow-up visit to see if an injury is healing.

Smartphone apps could change that. The industry is seeing some of the first apps that point the way toward giving you a doc in your pocket. And we’re not just talking about apps that provide health information from the web. These new apps do some medical heavy lifting.

Nobody suggests apps are going to replace doctors. But if they can reduce in-person doctor visits by even a small percentage while at the same time catching problems like skin cancer a bit earlier, the nation would spend billions of dollars less on health care.

Some recent pioneering health care apps:

 

  • This month, German company FotoFinder unveiled its handyscope for identifying skin cancer. This isn’t exactly a consumer product. The handyscope is an attachment to an iPhone, and it lets a dermatologist magnify a spot on a patient’s skin and snap a photo to send off to a specialist for analyzing. The gadget costs $1,590. Still, devices like this inevitably drop in price. So why shouldn’t everybody someday have a handyscope in the medicine cabinet next to the thermometer? If you’re worried about a mole, shoot a picture and have the phone automatically compare your mole to a database of dangerous mole characteristics. If it detects any possible problem, it could send the photo on to your doctor for a second opinion. There is an accompanying handyscope iPhone app that costs $25 to download.
  • Last fall, the U.K. government helped fund a project to develop a smartphone-based test for sexually transmitted diseases. The plan is to make an inexpensive chip with chemical sensors that could plug into the USB port on a phone. Someone who suspects he or she has an STD could spit or urinate on the chip, then connect it to the phone. The app could then diagnose the condition and inform the user. If such a device can be developed, it would open the way for analyzing bodily fluids for everything from diabetes to pregnancy.
  • A number of other medical instruments are finding their way to smartphones. You can get a blood pressure gauge that attaches to an iPhone and records readings. The iStethoscope may not be as sensitive as the real thing – you place the phone’s microphone over your heart and it counts your heartbeats – but it’s a start. Then there are products like Fitbit – a tiny motion-sensing device that keeps track of how many calories you burn during the day. A Fitbit can send its data to an iPhone – though for that matter it’s easy to imagine an iPhone that eventually can use its motion sensor to detect activity and do what a Fitbit does.
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Start adding up the different possible ways to monitor your vital signs, and you could use a phone to track a lot of what a doctor measures during a physical. The beauty of a doc in your pocket, though, is that the doc is watching you all the time – and could notice if something goes out of whack, like if your blood pressure spikes.

The next step is for the phone – or a cloud-based web site – to be able to integrate all the various health input with other information about you, like what drugs you’re taking and your medical history. If the app notices a change in your vitals, it could compare it to your personal information and compare it to information in medical textbooks and scientific papers.

If the app then diagnosis a possible problem, it could send you a text telling you to see your doctor.

All in all, you might go to the doctor less, but when there’s a problem you might catch it earlier – which in turn could mean you’d need less medical care. If the U.S. government really wants to fight health care costs, it would do well to invest in developing technologies like these.

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