Ultrasound? Fetal Monitoring? Spectrometer?
There's an App for That!
By Leslie Mertz
A profusion of new software applications, or apps, are either already here or coming soon to convert smart phones into biomedical devices that will play a larger role in healthcare. Engineers, computer programmers, medical professionals, and other researchers are jumping on the bandwagon to create apps and add-on devices, or peripherals, that turn a smart phone into a microscope, an ultrasound machine, or a heart-rate monitor, just to name a few.
One of the reasons for the boom in biomedical apps is that smart phones are incredible devices. They have powerful processors, considerable memory, an ample touch screen with amazing graphics, and built-in wireless connectivity for e-mail and Internet access. Another reason for the boom is that a growing crowd of medical professionals already has smart phones and craves new and innovative apps.
Medical-related smart phone apps fall into three general categories. The first is reference and clinical-decision tools for health-care providers. The second category is apps directed at patients to educate them about their conditions and encourage them to take the necessary steps to stay healthy. The third emerging segment is oriented toward mobile devices. Beyond these three categories of reference and clinical tools, patient-education apps and mobile devices, a national push is under way to encourage doctors' offices to switch to electronic health records (EHRs), which is another ripe area for new apps. EHR vendors are already releasing tablet versions of their software, and smart phone versions will be close behind.
Several examples of apps are provided in the article.
Portable Ultrasound Device and App (Figure 1).
This actually is a package of cellphone, ultrasound probe and software, manufactured by Mobisante. The objective of the device is not to replace cardiac or obstetrics ultrasound units, but to be an additional unit in point-of-care settings.
Figure 1. Mobisante developed a complete phone-and-ultrasound package that offers low cost, ease of use, and portability. The company believes it will be especially beneficial in low-resource settings, such as rural areas and developing countries. (Photo courtesy of Mobisante.)
Microscope and Spectrometer
Another notable use for smart phones came to the forefront in October, when the laboratory of Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and facility director of the Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology at UC Davis received media notice for turning a cell phone into a microscope. This group is also developing a mobile phone spectrometer.
They attach a very small microlens to the camera window, and when an object is brought close to the micro-lens, the phone can take microscopic images of objects of interest. For the Spectrometer, their laboratory developed an attachment, which is a small tube with a grating at one end and a slit at the other. When the camera takes a picture of a sample, such as a drop of blood, the grating disperses light from the sample into its component parts or spectra. The next step in this work is the deveoplment of smart phone apps. They are looking into developing apps that would provide further analysis of the information that we record with the microscope or spectrometer.
Another set of apps allows health-care providers to view multiple hospital patients' monitors on a smart phone. These apps will soon add the ability to continue monitoring patients once they leave the hospital and are at home again. There is an expanding need for such remote monitoring, partially driven by reimbursement models, which place increasing emphasis on keeping patients healthy after they have been discharged from a hospital.
Detection of Vital Signs
One group that is developing apps to monitor vital signs is the laboratory of Ki H. Chon, professor and head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts (Figure 2). These apps, many of which he hopes to be commercially available in 2012, transform a smart phone into a portable diagnostic device. The first prototype uses the phone camera and flash to detect atrial fibrillation. Chon's research group now hopes to add other vital signs.
Figure 2. By simply holding a finger over a phone's camera and flash light, this smart phone app developed at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute can determine a number of vital signs, including heart and respiration rates. (Photo courtesy of Ki Chon.)
Patient education is indeed a good use of smart phone technology, according to Leslie A. Saxon, MD, chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC) and executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing. Researchers at the Center for Body Computing are developing an app that will help cardiovascular patients take more control of their health by monitoring pressures inside their own heart.
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