Stephen Ginn: smartphone health apps for the future

Stephen GinnI learnt some interesting facts about mobile phones the other day. For instance, there are 59 countries where mobile phones outnumber people. This refers to mobile phones actually in use, rather than forgotten ones in drawers, under sofas, or in the glove compartment of your car.  Worldwide there are six trillion texts sent a day, about which unexceptional Western teens are exceptionally keen as they send/receive an impressive 3,400 per month.  The average user of a mobile phone looks at it 150 times a day.  That’s every 6 minutes 30 seconds. 

We’ve known for while that mobile phones, and their newer, cleverer brethren “smart phones” are really going places.  They’ve become essential to our lives, supplanting other objects in our affections, as observed (tearfully?) by Jeff Hazlett, former CMO of Kodak. 

“Photographs used to be the item people would run into a burning building to go retrieve; today a mobile phone has replaced that”

Even a fairly humdrum smart phone now packs a terrific amount of computing power. Beyond making voice calls the initial uses of these phones were fairly unimaginative.  Since then a combination of advancing phone functionality and imaginative third party “apps” points to a future where mobile phones are not only ubiquitous but will be increasingly relied upon to help us to interact with, and make sense of, the world.  They also have a potential to substantially alter the practice and potential of healthcare. 

Key to this transformation is that smart phones can interact with the world around them. The first generation of mobile phones received input solely through a keypad. Today, just like me, my phone can see and hear, and can detect motion and direction.  Using an app like Layar I can overlay digital information onto my phone’s field of vision. Using SoundHound, it can tell me which song is playing on the radio. My maps app means I never get lost. 

So far, so useful, but my phone can also communicate with other devices wirelessly–something that exceeds my human capabilities.  This is already allowing smart phones to subsume the function of a credit card or a set of keys.  Using the same technology in the near future the world has the potential to become an “internet of things,” a huge network of interconnected devices. 

Imagine your ever smarter handset telling you that you have a window left open at home and asking you whether you wish to switch off your heating, or reminding you that your car is short on fuel. From here it’s almost no leap at to see a patient with coeliac disease scanning every item in a supermarket before purchase to ensure it’s compatible with their diet. Or to imagine a world where wearable sensors, that will allow us to routinely monitor our wellbeing, are commonplace.  If your heart beat rises unexpectedly, your phone will ask you if you’re stressed and advise you to take a break.

In many ways this all sounds fantastic, as it offers opportunities for the early detection of disease and for promotion of healthy living. I’m not sure I personally welcome a coming world where my phone moonlights as my super-ego, or where my body is viewed as simply being a more intimate extension of my social network. However even I can see it would be useful if my running shoes could tell me when they’re worn out.

Interesting link:  the future of health

Stephen Ginn is the BMJ editorial registrar.

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