Turning Your Smartphone into a Digital Medical Kit

By July 30, 2014
The CellScope demo

CellScope is marketing an optical sensor which turns a smartphone into a digital otoscope that enables people suffering from ear infections to have their condition diagnosed remotely. This kind of device is proving an excellent means of gathering health data over time and also helping to create a better relationship between doctors and patients.

Back in 2009, a presentation of a blood pressure sensor linked to an iPhone using 3G caused a sensation. Since then mobile health technology has progressed by leaps and bounds, and a recent report by PwC predicts that annual revenues for m-health will reach $23 billion by 2017. The launch this coming autumn of iOS 8, Apple’s latest version of its operating system, which includes an integrated health app, should also help to boost growth in this field. In fact smartphones nowadays contain some impressive hardware that is capable of improving health monitoring. This aspect, rather than data collection in the purest sense, was what appealed most to the two founders of San Francisco-based startup CellScope, who were part of the inaugural class of healthcare startups at the Rock Health incubator that helped to pioneer m-health. The two bioengineering graduates of the University of California at Berkeley set up CellScope in 2011, with the aim of transforming smartphones into medical diagnostic tools.  The first fruit of their efforts is a digital otoscope, which uses a sensor plugged in alongside the iPhone camera to record images of the eardrum and ear canal. With this device people can examine their own ears and forward the pictures via a special app to a doctor for a remote diagnosis.

Wide potential for medical diagnosis

The use of this type of technology is also shaking up the patient-doctor-treatment relationship, given the active role the patient plays in the examination and the fact that the diagnosis is likely to make more sense to the sufferer. CellScope sees a potentially large market for its sensor attachment, which is rather inexpensive to make, given that an estimated 30 million doctor visits take place every year in the United States to deal with ear infections alone. And this self-examination approach, based on an optical sensor add-on to an iPhone camera plus mobile app, can be used for many other types of medical condition. The next CellScope product in the pipeline is a remote-diagnosis dermascope.  The UC Berkeley lab where the startup’s founders met had already pioneered the use of mobile microscopes for remote diagnosis of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria in emerging countries. Their first move has so far been to use the iPhone to optimise and popularise the remote diagnosis approach.  They now plan to diversify into other markets.

Growing popularity of ICT hardware in the health sector

What most m-health projects have in common is the imperative to produce low-cost solutions for medical staff and their patients. Nowadays hardware design is beginning to mimic the cost structure of software projects – lower startup costs, fast prototyping and a dynamic ecosystem. Accordingly, the smartphone, with the high image quality of its integrated camera, is becoming increasingly popular as a medical diagnostic tool. Two young researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine in the United States have recently developed a sensor similar to the CellScope device for use in ophthalmological diagnosis.  Among the key practical advantages claimed for this type of tool are that it helps to alleviate congestion in the medical or emergency services and is of enormous benefit in emerging countries where there is a shortage of specialist medical staff.  On a less positive note however, some commentators are still wary of the risk that the medical data being collected on individual patients, though of immediate benefit to the patient, may be subsequently used for non-medical purposes.

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