How the Smartphone Is Transforming Medicine

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Mobile health isn’t new. The practice of using personal mobile devices like smartphones with wearable sensors like watches to track and even diagnose medical conditions has been around for more than a decade. The Withings company launched its connected body scale in June 2009 and its blood pressure monitor (connected to the iPhone) in 2011, for example. And Apple made its foray into tracking personal fitness and health when it teamed up with Nike in 2006 with the Nike+iPod Sports Kit.

WHAT IS FUELING MOBILE MEDICINE?

  • Software companies have more data than ever.
  • Hardware upgrades are making smartphones even smarter.
  • There are more than 350,000 healthcare apps available.

What is new, however, is the breadth of today’s technology. In the past several years, AI has advanced so rapidly that smartphone apps and their connected sensors can now accomplish feats inconceivable just several years ago. Using only a smartphone, you can now prevent health emergencies, diagnose clinical disorders and even treat conditions without prescription drugs.

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More Data Than Ever

AI isn’t the only technology driving the breakneck explosion of mobile medicine, either. AI-enabled software is only as good as the data it relies on to make medical predictions. 

Today, software companies have more data than they’ve ever had before, thanks to millions of users worldwide who’ve been tracking their heart rate, steps, sleep and other biometrics, knowingly or not, for years. This ever-expanding data bank allows software manufacturers to hone the accuracy of their existing apps while creating new software and sensors that can monitor, diagnose, and treat people in other amazing, new ways.

Another factor fueling the transformation of smartphone medicine is hardware, which has become more sophisticated in recent years. This hardware upgrade has given our phones the ability to process and store more data in a smaller space, making it as powerful as some supercomputers. Today’s smartphone even outshines the supercomputer found on the spaceship Orion, launched by NASA in 2014 to prepare for man’s first crewed mission to Mars.

As our smartphones get smarter — and our out-of-pocket healthcare costs continue to rise — the world of medical apps has exploded. Today, there are more than 350,000 different healthcare apps. The mobile-health market is expected to approach $290 billion in revenue by 2025. 

The mobile-health market is expected to approach $290 billion in revenue by 2025. 

It’s a fascinating contradiction: while the costs of technology continue to drop (does anyone remember how expensive the first personal computers were?), healthcare costs keep rising. It’s not really surprising that there’s a lot of interest, especially from big tech and the business world, in using the power of technology to tackle one of healthcare’s biggest challenges: cost. 

I believe that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen so many tech companies enter the healthcare and life sciences industries; their outsider point of view is not unlike the one I had looking in at the telecom industry and imagining how GPS could be used in a whole new way. The industry is revolutionizing not only how we look at medicine, but also the power we hold in our hands to take care of our own health.

Health Checks at Home

Think about it for a moment. If you could own an app that could diagnose you with the same accuracy as your primary care provider, you’d have the virtual equivalent of an on-call physician with you at all times who could help streamline your care in real life. 

Earache? Let the AI-enabled app, maybe combined with access to a telehealth provider, distinguish between something that needs an office visit in the next day or two, a simple prescription with advice to follow up in a week,or a recommendation to head to the emergency room or urgent care right away. Without the cost or chaos of an unnecessary office or urgent visit, you’d be able to consult this virtual physician regularly without waiting to get seriously sick to realize something was wrong with you — or if you should just take an over-the-counter pain reliever and rest for the day.

The Future You book coverSimilarly, if your phone and a few connected sensors could monitor your blood pressure, cholesterol and other basic biomarkers around the clock, you’d know within seconds if something was irregular rather than waiting to reach the same conclusion after developing symptoms.

How many of us head to the dermatologist every year for a head-to-toe exam to look for signs of

skin cancer? What if your phone could also scan your skin for signs of cancer or other ailments without the yearly trip, and in the comfort of your own home? And then transmit the scan to the dermatologist’s office, where it could be looked over? If things look good, you might get a letter in your electronic health record saying you’re good for another six months or a year. 

If the dermatologist sees something concerning, you might get a phone call instead, asking you to schedule an appointment for a follow-up in the office. The setup could also be ideal for parents who are worried about a rash on their child. You’d have the ability to know what was wrong, probably in less time and at a lower cost than it takes to get an accurate diagnosis today.

The smartphone has become medicine’s great equalizer, making it easier for everyone to obtain top medical attention, regardless of factors that have traditionally limited quality healthcare.

In short, smartphones are democratizing medicine in ways we’ve never seen before, an idea first touted by the eminent cardiologist Dr. Eric Topol in his 2014 book The Patient Will See You Now. Since then, more of us own smartphones. Nearly four billion people worldwide, including 81 percent of U.S. adults, possess this portable supercomputer. 

Now, anyone who has a smartphone or smartwatch can potentially access quality healthcare, no matter how old they are or where they live, whether in a big city with access to excellent hospitals and specialists or in a rural area without many medical facilities or qualified physicians. We’ll still need trained doctors, of course, and there’s some level of infrastructure needed to get healthcare systems ready to receive data from our phones and digital devices, but the smartphone has become medicine’s great equalizer, making it easier for everyone to obtain top medical attention, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, age, income level, insurance coverage, or other factors that have traditionally limited quality healthcare.

An App for Nearly Every Condition

Today, you can find a smartphone app for nearly every medical condition or outcome. Apps abound to monitor heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, fertility, sleep, and even brain-wave activity. Some apps can diagnose or offer medical guidance; others share your information with a physician or other healthcare provider. 

There are apps that mimic medical equipment, turning your smartphone into a digital stethoscope, blood-pressure cuff, thermometer, spirometer, and even ultrasound. You can use your phone to access your electronic health records or connect instantly with a physician via video or text. Your phone can help you find and enroll in a clinical trial or help you shop around for the best price on prescription drugs. With the help of a smartphone and some sensors, you can find out if your child has an ear infection or learn how to walk again after a devastating spinal-cord injury.

In addition to offering innovative ways to let you take control of your health, what these apps all have in common is that they’re powered by AI and big data.

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How Does AI Fit In?

Simply put, AI comes into the picture in two ways. First, your health data is detected and compiled through the intelligent features of your devices in ways previously not possible, such as heart rate, blood pressure, sleep restlessness, temperature, etc. Second, these smartphone apps can build extremely large data sets across the entire population that uses that app (big data) as well as pulling in outside data from other studies or research related to the same health metrics. 

This is where AI comes in. When you put these two types of information together and use sophisticated algorithms to identify patterns and see correlations, you can make sense of what’s going on with large groups of people, and how health or metrics among populations are changing. You can also tell individual users how their patterns compare to those of others, how their own pattern might change day to day, or in the case of a crisis, diagnose an emergency. 

But making those connections between individuals and populations only becomes possible with advanced AI tools and software trained to “learn” about patterns and compare them to known healthcare standards.

Excerpted with permission from The Future You: How Artificial Intelligence Can Help You Get Healthier, Stress Less, and Live Longer by Harry Glorikian, published by Brick Tower Press, 2021.