Cell Phone Medicine Update

Cell Phone Medicine Update Photo Credit: Jane Miller/DFID

Using mobile phones for medical purposes, a new frontier when we reported on it in 2008, has become a huge field.


Smartphone medicine. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In 2008, Science Update first reported on using mobile phones as medical tools. Since then, the field, now known as mHealth, has exploded.

Larry Chang is Associate Director of the Global mHealth Initiative at Johns Hopkins University. They’re working on a dozen projects in ten different countries. In India, for example, smartphones walk health-care workers through a screening test for oral cancer. Then, the screener can take pictures of the patient’s mouth.

And then these images are sent back to a central facility, or to experts in the States, to evaluate to see if there are any suspicious lesions, which are concerning for oral cancer. And based upon that, the patient can be triaged in different ways.

Other projects in the initiative use smartphones to track malaria in Zambia, manage immunizations in Bangladesh, and monitor water quality in the Amazon. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

Today's smartphones have more computing power than Apollo 11, the first manned spacecraft to land on the moon, and would rival the world's most powerful supercomputers from the 1990's. As a result, with just a few add-ons, they can do the work of many modern medical devices. Yet they're relatively cheap and extremely portable, which makes it possible for doctors to take them to remote locations. What's more, according to the World Bank, three-quarters of the world's population now has access to a mobile phone. In many places, therefore, projects can take advantage of patients' own phones as well.  

The field of mobile-phone medicine is now referred to as “mHealth.” Some mHealth projects simply take advantage of a smartphone's built-in capabilities. For example, one project uses mobile phones to send timed reminders to mothers in Western Kenya to vaccinate their children. They also receive cash or other mobile-delivered rewards for following through with the vaccinations. Another project, which targets low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore, Maryland, uses automated text messages and tracking tools to help users control their weight. On the physician's side, mobile phones can be used to keep patient records and transmit them to larger facilities. 

In other cases, added features can turn mobile phones into other kinds of tools for medicine or public health. One of the latest examples is a smartphone microscope, developed by Aydogan Ozcan of the University of California, Los Angeles. This attachment, which weighs less than half a pound, turns an ordinary smartphone into a powerful fluorescent microscope. It lights up a liquid or solid sample with a laser, and captures fluorescent light from the particles it’s looking for. It's capable of visualizing particles a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Still, researchers are just starting to tap into the potential of mHealth to break down barriers in medicine. It could bring important technological power to areas that can't afford to import state-of-the-art, full-sized medical equipment. It's also being used to link experts in major medical centers with remote locations, so that top doctors can consult with and treat patients thousands of miles away.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is mHealth?
  2. What are some of the advantages of using smartphones in medicine?
  3. How are smartphones bringing new levels of care to remote and under-served populations?
  4. What are some examples of mHealth projects?

You may want to check out the October 18, 2013, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: Literary fiction's influence on social astuteness, why some people still fall for email spam, and how sluggers’ eyes can track fastballs in time to hit them.

To look back at the early days of mHealth, see the original 2008 Science Update Cell Phone Medicine.

For other scientific uses of smartphones, see the Science Update Cell Phone Air Sensors.

Going Further

For Educators

To look back at the early days of mHealth, see the lesson on the original 2008 Science Update Cell Phone Medicine.

For other scientific uses of smartphones, see the Science Update Cell Phone Air Sensors and the ScienceNetLinks featured app Project Noah.

For more about the Johns Hopkins University Global mHealth Intiative, visit the project's website.

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