Can Smartphones Diagnose Diseases? The Future of Healthcare and Technology.

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Health-informaticsHealth Informatics

The intersection of healthcare and technology is now reaching far beyond innovations in the operating room and pharmaceuticals.  The internet, mobile phones apps, and social media are all working to improve not only how health care services are provided, but also to increase the number of people who can receive quality care.

This concerted effort has given rise to the burgeoning field of health informatics, which is interested in studying the intersection of technology, information, and health care.  Specialists in health informatics are pioneering ways for doctors to electronically share information and to connect with patients and with other doctors.  The role of social media in healthcare is just one route they are exploring.[1]

Social Media and Health Care

With over 1billion facebook users, not to mention subscribers to other popular sites, social media provides a vast network of connections using a program that people are already familiar with. [2]  Instead of trying to get patients to sign up and utilize a new service, doctors can tap into the existing system and begin forging stronger relationships with their patients.

While social media is not meant to replace doctor-patient interactions, studies have shown that it has been helpful in strengthening relationships, monitoring patients, and holding them accountable for health habits.  For example, patients can use social media to send their doctors information about their blood pressure or blood glucose from the comfort of their own home.  Doctors can then be sure that patients are following instructions and be alerted to any abnormalities that may indicate a problem.  This allows doctors a more accurate patient profile than the occasional in office check-up.

Social Media is also allowing doctors the opportunity to collaborate and partake in online physician communities, like Sermo.  These sites are, once again, meant to strengthen relationships and open up the lines of communication.  Doctors can pose questions to a widespread community of professionals and receive real time answers.  These types of sites also provide another way to stay on top of the latest medical advancements and be constantly working on professional development.


In addition to exploring how health care providers can utilize social media, health informatics is also concerned with looking at how access to electronic records and information can improve any health related experience.  This subcategory of health informatics is often referred to as ehealth.  Currently, only about 34% of doctors use electronic records to store patient information.  While this might sound like a small percentage, consider the fact that just two years ago that number was only 17%.[3]  This substantial increase is due in large part to incentives offered by the Obama administration to encourage doctors to adopt this new technology.

Proponents of eHealth say that using electronic records will help doctors share information and coordinate treatments, which will ultimately save everyone time and money.  However, some doctors are hesitant to implement this new system because they fear that patient information will become more vulnerable to privacy breaches once it is digitized.  In addition, a lot of private practices simply don’t have the money to invest in switching over to an electronic system and retraining their employees.

While the benefits of ehealth efforts have not won over everyone in the medical community, in some ways it seems inevitable that all health information will eventually be shared electronically.  The days of pen and paper documentation are surely numbered as our entire world becomes increasingly based around technology.  The main concerns, then, are making sure that patient records are adequately protected and that there are enough well trained employees in the job market to support and run this new system.[4]


Another facet of health informatics that has been met with mixed reviews is mHealth, or mobile health.  While not everyone has access to a computer, there are about 5 billion mobile phones in the world, which equates to one phone for everyone over the age of 15. Health informatics specialists took a look at those statistics and saw a huge potential to open accessibility to life-saving medical information across the world.  Experts saw eHealth as being especially transformative in rural towns and underdeveloped countries where access to doctors and healthcare information is limited.  The only complication is that most mobile phones are basic models that are only capable of receiving calls and texts.  This raises a couple major issues.cell-phone

First, what kind of information should be sent to users?  Initially, the idea was to send advice and reminders to patients through text messages and voicemails.  This method of information delivery exposed a second major problem with mHealth:  how to get people to be willing and active participants.   Unlike more dynamic social media tools, which allows existing users to essentially repurpose a service they already use, simply sending messages turned out to be a static and one-sided tool.  Studies revealed that people simply didn’t use these services.[5]

When it comes to the average smart phone user in wealthier countries, the story is much different.  As it stands today, about 5% of smartphone users take advantage of some type of app to help them monitor their health and that number is expected to continue to grow.[6]  Most people use these apps to fight obesity by tracking their caloric intake and to record blood sugar and blood pressure test results.[7]  Smart phone apps allow for a dynamic and participatory user experience, which draws in more customers.

For doctors, the future of smartphones and health care appears limitless.  Scientists and programmers alike are working to develop applications and accessories that will help professionals to use their phone to diagnose certain diseases, share information about the spread of diseases, and add certain accessories that will transform their phone into a medical tool.

Some examples of phone accessories that are being developed include an iStethoscope that can be plugged into your phone to record your heartbeat.  That audio can then be sent to your doctor for analysis.  MIT has also developed an attachment known as NETRA or the Near Eye Tool for Refractive Assessment, which can turn a smart phone into a diagnostic tool for vision problems.[8]  In addition, several universities have developed variations of an attachable microscope that can be used to examine cells and help diagnose diseases.  This is an especially important advancement when combined with software that can help the average person recognize diseases with astounding accuracy.  This tool is already being used with some success in parts of Africa to diagnose malaria and hookworm in places where doctors simply aren’t available.[9]


While technology and health care may not have forged a perfect relationship yet, recent advancements have certainly highlighted the potential for technology to revolutionize the way people receive healthcare.  The future appears particularly bright considering the new crop of informatics experts who will be working to stay on top of a combination of disciplines that are constantly in flux.  Hopefully, existing tools like social media and mobile phones will help ensure that more people have access to quality, affordable health care services.

[1] “Social Media, Healthcare & Health Centers.” RCHN Community Health Foundation, 7 March 2012.  Web. 19 March 2013.

2 Vance, Ashlee.  “Facebook: The Making of 1 Billion Users.” Bloomberg Businessweek: Technology, 4 October 2012.  Web.  18 March 2012.

[3] “We Can’t Wait: Obama Administration takes new steps to encourage doctors and hospitals to use health information technology to lower costs, improve quality, create jobs.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 30 November 2011. Web. 19 March 2013.

[4] “We Can’t Wait . . .”

[5] Rosenberg, Tina. “The benefits of Mobile Health on Hold.”  The New York Times, 13 March 2013. Web. 19 March 2013.

[6] “The Committee on Energy and Commerce: Memorandum.” U.S. House of Representatives, 15 March 2013. Web. 19 March 2013.

[7] Sweeny, Chris. “Dr. Smartphone: 5 Ways your Phone Can Diagnose You.” Popular Mechanics, 2013. Web. 19 March 2013.

[8] Sweeny, Chris.

[9] Rosenberg, Tina.



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