Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Medical Smart Phone Apps Used Smartly

National Public Radio's Science Friday ran a story last week about a new twist on technology and healthcare: the development of medical apps that will interface with your Smart Phone. The idea is that there will be apps that will collect and display data (through various means) that you can read on the cell display. Sleep patterns, nutritional patterns, changes in subtle bodily systems over time.

Most of the conversation focused not on the apps themselves but on the larger picture of what such personalized medical tools mean for the future of medicine.  It is a shame that sometimes the comments seemed to imply that the situation was a zero-sum game. The wisest comments seemed to come from those who pointed out that appropriate use and balance was key. Common sense needs to apply.

The development of medical apps should come as no surprise. Mobile device apps are popping up for just about everything. Interfacing an app with a device such as a wireless headband that transmits brain wave data, or that tracks and analyzes blood sugar levels over the course of the day could be incredibly useful. The application possibilities are enormous.

A large proportion of the population has some form of periodic or regular heart murmur; sometimes so mild that it operates below awareness. Let's say you have such a murmur and it is detected on a routine office visit. Today, if  you and your doctor want to learn more about it, the first thing to do is to make an appointment to go in and get tested with an electrocardiogram. A short office visit, you get to see the graphical readout of your heartbeat. An expensive office visit. Perhaps your heart murmur decides not to put in an appearance during your visit. No useful data. Do you repeat this test at regular intervals hoping to catch the murmur in action?

If you want to know more, with a higher chance of success, you can get outfitted with a harness that you wear around for a day or so while it gathers all sorts of data as you go through your normal routine. Even more expensive and several more office visits. What if after all this you and your doctor determine you have a perfectly normal heart and there is nothing to worry about? Fine, if you had the time and the health insurance to accommodate. A great example where those who have financial resources,  insurance and access, can benefit from superb healthcare technology. The rapidly growing population who do not have these resources lose out.

With current technology an app could be developed that would gather this same data and send it to your Smart Phone. The app would most likely cost less than one office visit. You could then take this data in to see your physician and together discuss its meanings and implications. Findings ways to gather more thorough, personalized and reliable medical data could be a win-win.

Of course, there is all sorts of room for concerns about the dangers of faulty self diagnosis and inappropriate healthcare behavior. These are not concerns new to Smart Phone medical apps; the valid concern has existed as long as we have had online medical websites. Longer. The dangers of self diagnosis from insufficient data and depth of knowledge need to be addressed. However, at least in this situation people would be looking at their own data rather than aggregate data from some remote database. This brings us back to the need for collaboration and balance.

These apps are not going to fundamentally change our current structurally defective healthcare system in the United States. But, used appropriately, with, as the Science Friday guests said, compassion and judgement, apps can provide personally relevant information that is often lacking these days. I also see medical apps as an opportunity for well trained cross disciplinary computing professionals to put their skills to work in a cutting edge way and address some of our most pressing healthcare issues. After all, the app developers will be the ones who decide what to code up. Personalized medical apps have the potential to be empowering.

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