We live in a digital age, where most of us in the Western world would be lost without all the electronic devices that power our lives, but does the rise of the smartphone hold something more than just tweeting, sharing and downloading? Do our mobile phones hold the key to a medical revolution that could see us living longer, healthier lives?
Mobile devices have been used in healthcare (mHealth) for some time – the annual mHealth Summit is currently in its 5th year – to bring textbooks and virtual labs to the bedside or help doctors to visually explain complex medical procedures to their patients. However medical apps are no longer just for the doctors, now they are being written, recommended by the NHS and even prescribed for you, the patient.
With our phones laden with sensors, cameras and GPS capabilities, and the number of health and fitness apps downloaded already at 156 million in 2012, our smartphones are giving us unprecedented access to data about our lives, and our health.
From the number of steps you take and hours you sleep, to blood glucose and ECGs, health and medical apps not only reveal information that encourages healthier behaviour among an increasingly sedentary population, but can also help people manage chronic illness better or even diagnose disease at the earliest stages.
Medical apps round-up
Rather than apps that allow you to just input data on diet and exercise and set targets, the next generation of health apps act as a monitoring system that gives you access to personal data, such as your daily activity and sleep patterns, helping you to make informed decisions about your lifestyle.
Health & wellbeing apps
Sleep Cycle (iOS – £1.49)
Marketed as a smart alarm clock, Sleep Cycle is actually much more. Using the accelerometer in your phone, the app will ‘monitor your movement to determine which sleep phase you are in.’ Not only does this allow you to wake you up at the most appropriate time, but gives you access to nightly information on your sleep patterns.
Withings (iphone, android – free)
The Withings Health Mate is a platform designed to be give you insight into the ‘main aspects of your wellness’ – namely your weight, activity, heart-rate and sleep patterns – using partner apps and devices. With your data all in one place, it’s easier to see a wider picture of your health and progress towards your goals. However, most measurements have to inputted manually, unless you’re dedicated enough to purchase the accompanying products.
Mobile health apps can be split broadly into two groups. Those above that support general health and wellbeing and others, along with some add-on devices, that have a more direct medical application used to manage, monitor and even diagnose disease.
The Diabetes Manager app is one of many recommended by the NHS to help those with chronic disease better monitor their own condition and treatment at home, including sharing records and important information more easily with their GP.
Additional monitoring apps include those which help patients those prescribed warfarin or have mental health issues.
Devised by a sufferer of chronic illness, PKB ‘integrates into the NHS Connecting For Health network to offer secure tools for patients to work with clinicians.’ This allows patients to save time with online consultations and manage who has access to their medical records – ultimately taking back ownership of a life that can feel taken over by disease.
This add-on device is leading the way in prescribed medical apps in the US. It is FDA approved and only available to licensed medical professionals and prescribed patients. It acts as a convenient and portable heart screening tool that is being used to give at-risk patients unmatched access to their health data.
Taking diabetes management one step further is this blood glucose meter. Rather than inputting your measurements, this add-on device, which syncs with an iphone, allows users to monitor their blood glucose levels in real-time and more continuously than before to see the effect their lifestyle is having on their condition.
The Portable Eye Examination Kit (Peek) is for a doctor’s pocket, rather than yours, as an ‘app-based visual diagnosis tool.’ This app, along with the Illumoscope, shows the other side of medical apps, making diagnostic tools small enough and portable enough to take into the developing world.
Become part of the research
To best understand and fight a disease, information on how it affects large numbers of people, along with their lifestyle data, is incredibly important and allowing medical apps to use our data as part of large-scale research projects could help drive research forward.
Rather than information that can be used on an individual patient level, Ginger.io is hoping to find patterns from smartphone data on a population scale. It is a behavioural platform with the aim to gather massive amounts of data that, with your help, can ‘generate new insights, create new therapies and better manage care for patients.’
Smoke Free (iOS, free)
Smoke Free is an NHS recommended app that is both a stop smoking aid and an experiment. The app can help you stop smoking but also, if you give it permission, it will use your data to investigate what the best techniques are to help future smokers quit more effectively.
What this means for our future
Medical apps have arrived and their use has been termed a revolution in healthcare, but what do these mobile apps really mean in terms of our health?
Information is at the heart of modern medicine and ultimately that’s what these health apps are promising – greater access to information, whether it’s the amount of exercise we take or what our heart is doing on a daily and weekly basis. The more information we have, the better decisions we can take about our health.
Research shows that recording patient data in a hospital digitally, as opposed to paper records, the data can then be analysed by software and alert staff to any deterioration, saving hundreds of lives per year for a single hospital.
Our everyday health
In a population of expanding waist-lines and inactive lifestyles, having access to actual data on how much exercise we really do, how balanced our diet really is, could be a revolution in our general health. With nowhere to hide in the face of cold, hard numbers, this data could help people change their behaviour in a meaningful way.
More than that, though, health and wellbeing apps are promising information on how your behaviour is directly affecting your health, giving you an insight into your inner workings. Being able to monitor your own blood pressure and heart-rate on your smartphone means that you’ll see how your diet, exercise and sleep is really affecting your health.
There is still some progress to be made on synchronising all this information and allowing us to see clearly what effects our lifestyle has on our health. As these apps develop, we’ll likely be able to tell what that extra cup of coffee or piece of cake is doing to our blood pressure, heart-rate and sleep pattern, and as a result, we’ll be able to make an informed decision before drinking or eating it.
Prevent rather than repair
The most exciting prospect that medical apps hold, as a tool for individuals to monitor more and more of their lives and health, is being able to catch disease at the earliest moment or even prevent health issues before they occur.
Professor Larry Smarr, dubbed the ‘most monitored man in the world’, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease before symptoms showed by noticing an elevation of protein in his comprehensive blood, urine and faeces measurements. His study to measure every enzyme, protein and mineral possible could be the future for personalised and preventative medicine. But for now, the information from medical apps is giving us something exciting to be going on with.
If the pattern of your heart-rate or your blood pressure is as familiar to you as the back of your hand, you’ll be able to spot irregularities that could be cause for concern. Most importantly in at-risk patients, this could detect signs of a heart attack or a stroke well before it happens, warning signs that will respond to intervention and prevention.
Smart phone add-on devices
Owlstone have developed a microchip that can detect minute chemicals in the air which can be used to detect for tell-tale footprints of disease at an early stage. The technology is already small enough to fit into a tablet-sized handheld device, but the company believe they can shrink this to a small smart-phone add-on device within 2 years.
Watch the video below for further information:
Mobile medical apps aren’t just making medicine more portable and convenient for the professionals across the world. They are giving us a glimpse inside ourselves for a medical future that is preventative – one that catches and acts upon health problems before they arise, rather than fixing them once they’ve happened.
The digital age is bringing us hordes of information that could change how we live our lives, identify disease and have us living healthier lives for longer. A brave new world, indeed.
[‘Doctor in your pocket’ image courtesy of flickr.com/photos/juhansonin/8593625632/]