Nobody likes going to the doctor. Sulky receptionists, a long wait with only a 10-year old copy of Practical Caravan to flick through, being sneezed and coughed at by fellow patients… Ugh. If only we could find out what’s wrong with us without leaving the house. Well, now we can. Or that’s the idea, anyway. Apps that diagnose illnesses have boomed in the last few years, so much so that last year, the Federal Drug Administration in the US began to impose stricter regulations on them, which is understandable given the potentially devastating effects of a false result. The EU will update its own policies in 2018.
There are currently over 100,000 medical apps for iOS and Android, and the mobile health market is expected to be worth £16 billion by 2017. The launch of Apple’s HealthKit and Samsung’s SAMI reflect our increased enthusiasm for having data about our health at our fingertips. The use of apps helps us feel more in control and may even take the sting out of the possibility of a scary diagnosis. It could also be helpful for symptoms people are embarrassed to talk to their doctor about. Some of the apps available include Dr Mole, which checks for skin cancer, iExam, a phone-based eye test, and iDoc24, an app that allows users to anonymously send photos of skin problems they’re concerned about (including suspected STDs) and get feedback from a licenced dermatologist within 24 hours.
But not all apps were created equal. A 2012 study by the New England Centre for Investigative Reporting revealed that of 1,500 health apps it evaluated, 20% claimed to treat or cure medical problems, but only a small percentage of them had been clinically tested. And last year, a research paper found that the results of skin cancer testing apps were “highly variable” and couldn’t be relied upon. A few months ago, David Soulsby, a project engineer for a company that designs electronic products for the medical market, wrote in Wired that healthcare apps should be approved by experts before they go on sale. Google doesn’t currently do this, although Apple requires developers to provide verification of medical information. Another concern is security: sensitive personal data like health information obviously needs to be kept private.
But the potential for medical apps goes way beyond individual users. Mobile phones are making it possible to offer screening services to the developing world that until now have been prohibitively expensive. MobileOCT makes it possible for health workers to examine women for cervical cancer (which kills 275,000 women a year) using a smartphone with a clip-on lens and special imaging software, where previously they had only had torches. This should make it easier to spot the disease in its early stages and mean an end to precautionary treatment. Accuracy levels are similar to standard testing equipment, but less than a tenth of the cost. (They’re now running an Indiegogo campaign to advance its use.) The EyeMITRA can be used to take an image of the retina, which can help to detect preventable causes of blindness. Again, it’s far cheaper than traditional testing devices. Urinary testing app uChek, which works in conjunction with low-cost testing strips, was developed by Indian inventor Myshkin Ingawale, a TED fellow. It can test for urinary tract infections, cancers, and liver problems and could help the 60 million people in India who have diabetes.
And these technologies don’t only have potential in the developing world: most countries are looking for ways to improve health costs without worsening patient care, and tools that work with smartphones could be a way forward. In fact, some doctors are already using their devices to help with diagnosis. Beta Boston spoke to a neurologist who makes use of apps like iSeismograph to help measure his patients’ Parkinson’s tremors, and there are apps specially designed for practitioners to use, like Airstrip, which monitors blood pressure, heart rate and other vital stats.
Given that it’s hard for Apple and Android to stay on top of the medical market and ensure that everything that passes through their app stores is safe, it might be best, at least for now, to leave the diagnosing to clinicians. But that doesn’t mean deleting every health app from your phone. They can really shine when it comes to tracking changes in our wellbeing over time, such as mood, heart rate, and blood sugar levels, and in providing a place to record new symptoms or ongoing fluctuations (period tracker, anyone?). This way we’ll be able to provide doctors with increasingly accurate information. In turn, they can refer us to apps that explain specific illnesses in detail, or prepare us for necessary tests, as with the colon cleansing app that Vice reported on last year.
And who knows? As demand grows, regulation increases and technology becomes ever more sophisticated, maybe one day you really will be able to get a guaranteed all-clear on that dodgy mole in the comfort of your own home.
By Diane Shipley | June 11th, 2014