As our lives get more hectic and hyper-connected, people are becoming more acutely aware of the negative impact technology can have on our health. I’ve talked before about how the internet is rewiring our brains, and of course, there’s the sitting epidemic that goes hand-in-hand with technology use. Our dependence on technology also makes it more likely that we aren’t getting time outdoors or high-quality sleep.
However, technology also has the potential to facilitate improvements in health – if we use it correctly. Last year, I wrote an article about the trend towards using technology to provide personalized health care and give patients more control over their own health. I recently listened to an interesting NPR program on a similar topic, and apparently these types of medical apps are gaining popularity. I wanted to share some of them with you all and hear your thoughts about this trend, so here are some of the apps I found intriguing.
Can everyday #technology be used to improve your health? There’s an app for that!
One app that would likely be useful to many patients is the Withings Blood Pressure Monitor, which requires a blood pressure cuff that you can plug into your iPhone. It has mostly good reviews on Amazon, and the fact that the app automatically tracks your readings makes it much more convenient to measure blood pressure regularly. If you’re in the process of lowering your blood pressure naturally, I think this device could be extremely useful for tracking your progress.
Another good one is the Masimo Pulse Oximeter, which is a plugin for the iPhone that you can just stick on your finger, and it will track your oxygen levels, perfusion index, and pulse. Then, it just transmits the data to the app on your phone. One of the most useful applications of this device is probably in detecting and monitoring sleep apnea, and you can see from the Amazon reviews that many people have used it for this purpose. Sleep apnea is much more common than many people would assume, and it can really damage your health if you don’t manage it properly, so by recording irregularities in oxygen levels throughout the night, this app and phone plugin could prevent a lot of health issues.
Next, there’s the AliveCor Heart Monitor, which is an FDA-approved device that your physician can actually prescribe you. (Imagine going to the doctor and being prescribed an app rather than a drug!) It’s a single-lead electrocardiogram (ECG) device that is embedded in an iPhone case, and all you have to do is hold it with two hands so it can pick up your heartbeat. Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist who is one of the leading practitioners bringing these new apps into everyday use, actually used this app to diagnose a woman with atrial fibrillation on an airplane. For anyone with a chronic heart condition, this could be a valuable tool for at-home monitoring.
Blood Glucose Monitors
In this interview with NBC, Dr. Eric Topol also demonstrated a phone app that gives a continuous readout of blood glucose levels via a non-invasive sensor attached to his skin. I’ve mentioned previously how important it can be to track your blood sugar if you suspect any metabolic issues, and an app like this could be incredibly useful for both diabetics and others who are concerned about their blood sugar. Instead of having to test your blood sugar by sticking your finger multiple times over a period of hours, you could just let the app do its thing, and then check on the data later to see a detailed graph of how your blood glucose responded to a meal you ate. (Of course, an app like this also has the potential to make you crazy if you’re checking your blood sugar every 30 seconds!)
Unfortunately this tracking device isn’t commercially available yet, but there are some other apps that look like they could be useful for diabetics. Glooko Logbook can sync to your meter and keep track of your blood glucose readings. Glucose Buddy is available on Android as well as iPhone, and it will keep track of glucose, A1C, carb consumption, and more, and will also send you push notifications to make sure you test your blood sugar regularly.
Other Physical Exam Apps
The iExaminer allows you to use your iPhone to take a picture of the optic disk at the back of the eye, although it requires a decent-sized piece of additional hardware. However, it appears to still be quite portable, as evidenced by this doctor who tried it out on top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Then there’s the CellScope Otoscope, which allows you to take pictures of the inner ear and diagnose ear infections remotely. The iPhone attachment required for this device is relatively discreet, too – just a special case with a small protruding head. Like the iExaminer, this is probably not particularly useful for individual patients, but could be a useful tool for doctors.
The SpiroSmart app can measure lung function simply by using the built-in iPhone mic – no additional hardware necessary. While this seems bound to be far less accurate than a clinical spirometer where patients breathe into a tube, the developer states that the average error is 5.1%, so this could still be a useful tool for at-home monitoring of lung conditions such as asthma.
Finally, there’s the SkinVision app, which allows you to take a picture of suspicious moles or other skin lesions and have the app determine if you need to visit your doctor or if you shouldn’t be concerned. This app also doesn’t require any extra hardware and they give you a free trial, so for anyone concerned about skin cancer or curious about a mole they have, this is certainly a low-risk investment.
BioZen is an Android app that was developed by the Department of Defense for service members, and it allows people to practice biofeedback without the large medical sensors you would find in a clinic. It does require purchase of multiple sensors that then send data readouts to your smartphone, but this is still a significantly more portable way to practice biofeedback.
So there you have it – some of the new-fangled medical apps that you might start to see in homes and doctor’s offices in the coming years. Of course, none of these should take the place of a doctor visit, and most of the same concerns I expressed in my last article on this topic still apply, but I also think these developments have the potential to really improve clinicians’ ability to help patients, as well as patients’ ability to help themselves.