How Smartphones Are Trying To Replace Your Doctor (But Can’t Yet)

For most of time, medicine was a guessing game. Doctors, or witch doctors, or shaman would inspect a patient, stir a potion and hope it would work. With some notable exceptions, modern medicine isn’t so different. The data collection — blood pressure, heart rate, weight, reflexes — is largely rudimentary. We’re getting by, but technology can take us so much further. Even technology that fits in your pocket.

In the past year or two (or three) iPhones and iPads have been a fixture in doctors’ offices around the world. Why carry a clipboard when you could pull up records via Wi-Fi and type the information directly into the patient’s medical record? Perhaps even more powerful is the idea that these devices can be collecting data all the time. Smartphones are incredibly powerful tools for anything as simple as data mining to something so sophisticated as measuring a patient’s sleeping pattern. There are apps that can help regulate your mental health, apps that can help you keep track of what and how much you eat. There are apps that can take your blood pressure and your blood sugar. There are even apps that help you cope with ageing.

While an app can’t cure a disease, some of the newer, more experimental medical apps can do truly extraordinary things. This technology can not only help you feel better; it can prevent illness by spotting symptoms early on.

An Ounce of Prevention

The first step — and the one smartphones are best suited for — is prevention, specifically in the form of fitness and nutrition. You probably have at least one Apple fanboy friend with a Nike+ FuelBand. Sure, they’re a little bit goofy-looking, but they work fantastically well in collecting data about your workout that you can sync with your home computer or smartphone. Check out some more mobile fitness ideas in our Fitmodo guide.

There are several blood pressure apps, but the iHealth kit (components sold separately) stormed on to the scene a couple of years ago, introducing most of the world to the medical capabilities of the iPhone. Another app called Doctor Mole will help you monitor the grown and progress of your moles. (Yay!) For overall wellness and symptomatology, try iTriage, an app built by doctors for patients.

Old Problems, New Tools

Back in 2009, when Apple first announced accessory support for iPhone OS, it proposed an at-home medical device capable of sending data to doctors. Since then we’ve seen specialised apps that do everything from checking your weight to your blood sugar levels, and everything in between. iBGSTAR uses a $US49 accessory to check glucose levels (and sounds like it’s an astronomy or hip hop app, so that’s fun). If you want to go for the whole clinic, you can throw down $US99 for the iHealth do-it-all app. Separate components do everything from take your blood pressure to monitor your weight. The list goes on and on.

That’s just a disclaimer. In truth, new smartphone-based technology is starting to change the way medicine works in America — and elsewhere. See a doctor toting around an iPad instead of a clipboard is not uncommon, nor is seeing a dermatologist use a smartphone camera to monitor potential skin cancers. A number of apps have been released lately by researchers that attempt to better understand the human brain. It’s like that psych study you did in university so that you could earn enough beer money to make it through the weekend, only you can do it on the train.

One of the most robust products on the market is called Epocrates. It’s not just one app but a whole suite of specialised resources — everything from pictures of pills to links to labs.

As for the features beyond a smartphone’s screen, the data collected by its guts can be pretty powerful in a doctor’s hands. The phone’s gyroscope is sensitive to movement so it could sense record how much a patient’s moving and wrist-based devices like the once problematic Jawbone UP can monitor your movement and sleep patterns. You could also imagine how even the phone’s microphone or an enhanced accessory could work three times better than a stethoscope. You can even monitor your heart with apps like AliveCor. And, of course, what’s really incredible about all of these tools is the sheer quantity of data they collect, data doctor’s can use to diagnose diseases.

Next up: tiny robots that tell your smartphone when somethings wrong. Check out this chip that’s embedded in your skin and can warn you up to four hours before you’re going to have a heart attack. Or these pills with microchips in them that send signals from your belly to your smartphone. Those nanobots, onces that could possibly seek out and destroy cancer cells, those aren’t far behind.

Nothing Like the Real Thing

But here comes the caveat: you are not a doctor. No matter how many fancy health apps you have in your phone, unless you’ve been to medical school, you should really refrain from trying to self-diagnose diseases. There’s a chance that you’ll make whatever anxiety you already have about mortality much, much worse. Trust me on this one.

Smartphones aren’t drugs. (Argue with me on this point, please.) An iPhone may be extremely valuable for tracking symptoms and knowing when it’s time to visit your oncologist, but it’s no replacement for chemotherapy. Even hacked-out Androids aren’t going to cure cancer yet. But even doctors acknowledge that smartphones are changing the game. And the technology is only getting better.