Doctor In Your Pocket

You’re at home, and are starting to get worried about some of the symptoms you’ve been experiencing lately. No problem…there’s an app for that.

You fire up your iPhone, plug a couple of sensors into it, and attach them to your body. It takes your temperature, measures your blood pressure and heart rate, runs a few diagnostic tests, and then asks you if you’re experiencing other symptoms, such as fever, headache, chills, nausea, abdominal pain, and enlarged lymph nodes. You acknowledge with a tap on the screen, and a voice announces, “Congratulations! You have bubonic plague. Please call 911 immediately.”

OK, there’s not really an app for that…yet

But they’re working on it. Your smart phone, after all, contains in its slim chassis more computational power than all the computers at NASA combined had in 1969 when they used them to send a man to the moon. Doctors and computer scientists are working on “apps” (software programs that can run on phones) that will do exactly what I have described above.

The closest I’ve found to achieving this “Doctor In Your Pocket” goal that you can use today is the Symptom Checker at It lives behind a hefty warning label that says, “This tool does not provide medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.” But it does allow you to tap into an extensive database of symptoms, drug and pharmaceutical information, and listings for health centers in your area. The next generation of “smart apps” for health care, however, may be light years ahead of this.

Future apps will perform blood tests, scan for skin cancer, or sniff out colon cancer

Really. Just ask Aydogan Ozcan, a bioengineer at UCLA, who has developed ways to convert a smart phone’s camera into a blood-cell analyzer, and thus avoid the need to send blood to a lab. In his working models, you just mount a glass slide containing the blood sample in front of the phone’s camera lens, and a light shines through it. The phone – which, after all contains more graphics power than a supercomputer did 20 years ago – processes the image and does simple things like perform a blood count, but also can scan for diseases like malaria or sickle-cell anemia. This “blood test phone” is still a long ways from being publicly available, but is already being considered for pilot studies in remote locations that don’t have a blood lab nearby.

Or consider the work being done by researchers at the University of Rochester, NY, where they are working on a smart phone attachment that can beam a tiny laser at one’s skin, penetrate it to a depth of 2 millimeters, and perform a 3D analysis of what it sees to determine whether it’s skin cancer. This research is eagerly awaited by many in the medical profession, because currently the only way to determine whether a patch of skin is cancerous is to perform a biopsy and take a sample of it back to a lab.

Even more fascinating is the work being done by Paul Rhodes, a neuroscientist whose company Metabolomx is developing what is essentially a “cancer Breathalyzer.” As he explains, “Cancer cells have distinctive byproducts that healthy cells don’t. These small molecules diffuse into the blood and the breath, and the pattern can be recognized.” His research was inspired by dogs who have been trained to detect the smell of cancer in the breath of a human being, with an astounding accuracy of 95%. Rhodes has been able to emulate the huge number of olfactory receptors in a dog’s nose by printing 130 such receptors on a postage-stamp-sized piece of plastic. When you breathe on it, some of the sensors change color when they detect the smell of cancer; these color patterns can then be analyzed by a computer or even a smart phone. In tests, his technology has achieved 85% accuracy in identifying patients with lung cancer.

None of these technologies is available for your smart phone…yet. They are still in the development stages, and must leap many more scientific hurdles – not to mention legal hurdles, and the question of how to handle accountability in a computer application that diagnoses illnesses – before they’re available to any of us. But such apps are coming, and may someday replace something that has now become a thing of the past – your doctor, actually making a house call.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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