Cell Phone Medicine

Cell Phone Medicine

Cell phones may help bring expensive medical devices to people in need.


A lifesaving phone call. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In the developing world, many doctors don't have access to high-tech imaging systems, like ultrasound and MRI, and if they do, the machines are often broken. University of California at Berkeley bioengineer Boris Rubinsky has a solution: call up a working machine with an ordinary cell phone.

He explains that you can do the scanning part with relatively cheap instruments, and send the raw data to a remote server as a cell phone text message. That server would then convert the raw data into a high-resolution image.


And the central processing facility can send back the image the way you would send a photo through your cellular phone.

To prove the concept, his team performed a kind of tumor-detecting electrical scan via cell phone, and it worked. He says the technique could also help control health care costs here at home. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

It's hard to believe that cell phones are a relatively recent technology, since they're everywhere you look these days. Today's phones not only make calls, but also send and receive text messages, take photos, download videos and music, play games, browse the Web, and direct you to a neighborhood restaurant or another city. In fact, many of these tasks require far more computing power than the medical application described in this story.

As the report said, developing countries often lack access to the kind of imaging systems we take for granted in the industrialized world. Even X-ray machines are scarce in these areas. Sometimes, hospitals and clinics that can't afford to buy imaging systems receive donated machines through charities, or buy older machines that wealthier hospitals don't want anymore. But they still might not have enough money to maintain those machines, or repair them when they break. And even if they have the money, they may not be able to find someone with the right skills to fix them. So, in short, good, working imaging systems are very rare in some parts of the world.

One technology that isn't so rare in these regions is the cell phone. That's because cell phones are relatively cheap to own and use, and it's much cheaper and more profitable for a corporation to build cell towers than it is for them to install a system of land lines in an area that has none. So in recent years, telecommunications companies have made huge inroads in developing countries, and now even people in remote, isolated villages are using them.

Rubinsky noticed this trend and recognized an opportunity: to use the cell phones to interface with imaging systems in other parts of the world. He explains that imaging systems have three basic components: data acquisition, or the parts that actually scan your body and gather information; information processing, which takes that data and converts it into a digital picture; and image display, the screen that shows the picture. Of the the three, only the data acquisition components need to come in contact with the patient. And the data acquisition machine parts tend to be cheap—usually costing only hundreds out of the tens of thousands of dollars that a whole machine can cost.

Information processing, on the other hand, costs a lot of money, because it requires serious computing power. However, the raw data it receives from the data acquisition instruments usually takes up only a few kilobytes of memory. That's comparable to a simple email message. Rubinsky says the raw data can be encoded as a long string of text and sent through an ordinary cell phone. Then the server on the other end does the heavy lifting of converting it into a picture, then sends the picture back to the cell phone just as easily as any picture you take yourself.

In his experiment, Rubinsky conducted a test called Electrical Impedence Tomography (EIT) on a jar of simulated human tissue. This test measures the way a body part conducts small zaps of electricity. Since tumors conduct electricity differently from healthy tissue, the test can be used to diagnose cancer. Using the cell phone technique and some data acquisition instruments, Rubinsky's team performed a successful EIT scan of their experimental tissue, revealing a simulated tumor.

If the technique takes off, it won't need to be restricted to developing countries. Paramedics and emergency medical personnel could use it in any ambulance, saving valuable time. In the future, it might even be a model for saving costs in hospitals, which could buy fewer complete machines—or none at all—and simply upload their raw data to a central server housed in some other part of the country.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. Why is there a need for imaging systems in the developing world?
  2. Describe the three components of an imaging system. How can a cell phone reduce the cost of this system?
  3. Can you think of other examples in which a central server performs computing operations for people that are far away?
  4. What are some potential drawbacks to this technique?

You may want to check out the May 23, 2008, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: CSI in the hospital, remote medicine with cellular phones, a better gas mask, the influence of cancer cells, and an upsurge in gestational diabetes.

Going Further

For Educators

In the National Geographic News article Crocodile and Scientist “Communicate” Using Mobile Phone, learn how a giant crocodile in South Africa is revealing its secret whereabouts through instant messages to a scientist's cell phone.

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