Apple, the iPhone, and the future of healthcare

By Jonny Evans

Health? You can't take it with you -- but increasingly your Apple [AAPL] iPhone can keep you ticking over better while you're still around. Today I'm writing a few notes concerning the Apple effect on the healthcare industry today, and tomorrow.

[ABOVE: There's a plethora of electronic medical records solutions for the iPhone and iPad today, but this is only the beginning of a mobile transformation for healthcare.]

An Apple a day keeping doctor away

Today's story isn't just about Apple, of course. Other mobile operating systems -- even feature phones -- have a part to play, but with most medical professionals already opting for an iPad above any other tablet, and with the efficiency and cost savings implicit within use of always-connected mobile devices, Apple's walled garden may end up being good for you.

The evolution of mobile health solutions is a necessity. Worldwide, there will be over two billion people aged 60 (PDF) or more by 2050, but a shortage of trained medical personnel to look after us all.

In theory, using mobile devices should speed up essential processes, such as: filing and accessing patient records, prescriptions, patient tests and diagnosis. Time for a few stats:

-- The total cost of stroke in the US is $43 billion/year.
-- 36.9 per cent of Americans suffer heart disease, medical care cost $273 billion.
-- 346 million people worldwide have diabetes, care cost $465 billion in 2011.

[ABOVE: This video details a blood sugar analysis device that works with your iPhone.]

Monitoring, prevention and cure

Mobile solutions can impact treatment, diagnosis and prevention of such conditions. Apps to keep you healthy, others to monitor your health, others to test you out, such as Dr. Diabetes, a solutions which uses mobile devices, an app and cloud servers to monitor diabetic health. These results are shared with doctors, with care costs reduced by 73 percent.

The apps also have a part to play. There's already apps to help improve your health -- look around the App Store and you'll find well in excess of 13,000 health-related apps, ranging from exercise and fitness guides to nutritional support, medical help, advice and diagnosis and uniquely interesting apps like SkinScan. SkinScan attempts to analyze images of itchy moles in order to figure out if you have skin cancer.

If you think about it, SkinScan works by looking at data (an image) of the patient and analyzing the future probability of a problem based on crowd-sourced data. By the way, if caught early, the 5-year melanoma survival rate is 91 per cent. Left unchecked this falls to 15 per cent.

iHealth Lab's blood pressure monitoring system for iOS devices turns your iPhone into a blood pressure monitor, and lets you email the results to your doctor for analysis. That's an important point I'll note again later.

The market for mobile health apps is expected to see revenue grow from $230 million in 2010 to $392 million in 2015, according to Frost & Sullivan. This is a bit of a gold rush, though given the unregulated nature of health app development, there's a need for research and standards evolution in order to ensure your health apps actually are healthy.

Into the clouds

Now consider the cloud. One thing medical science has never had before is a global health survey across all humanity. If you think about it, most medicine and treatment is based on trials across relatively small samples of people.

The emergence of the cloud could enable (subject to privacy constraints) medical professionals worldwide to upload their patient data for automated analysis of treatment and outcome. That's big data, and this could well yield some fascinating results, results which may transform treatment for some less well-understood problems.

Cloud data also means something else. Apps are already hitting the market which test a patient's daily condition, tracking heartbeat, weight, food consumption, exercise taken and other valuable data. This data can be shared with a medical professional who can then monitor a patient in order to make sure their condition remains relatively stable.

This monitoring can also provide early warning of any potentially damaging conditions. The advantage? The doctor doesn't need to see the patient on a daily basis, giving time efficiencies to the practitioner and less stress to the patient. Systems such as this will enable doctors to monitor thousands of patients in future, enabling them to better cater for a growing population of elderly folk.

Former Apple CEO, John Sculley, has a few ideas concerning future healthcare and the cloud: "If you can take that data and then be able to analyze it, it means that the future of medicine is going to be able to make predictions and measure outcomes of patient health improvement at a level of accuracy and a level of personalization that we've never seen before," he told The Guardian earlier this week.

Treatment anywhere

The impact isn't just positive for patients in the developed world, developing world economies should also see benefit. Medics working in Africa can become isolated in remote areas, but tools like these should enable them to work with patients who they can't easily see. Developing economies often lack a fixed line communications infrastructure, which is why over 90 percent of phone lines in Africa are mobile.

The carriers are well aware of this. Dig around in your chosen network's Website and you'll soon find that they already have business units dedicated to development of mobile health solutions. They recognize the part to play of the network, and want to lead the evolution of this use as an element to their core business.

One African initiative sees doctors and healthcare workers equipped with mobile phones preloaded with drug guides, medical alerts, journal summaries and medical references. This means healthcare workers even in the most remote places can have all the latest medical information at their disposal.

Thinking ahead

We're only scratching the surface with the solutions we have available today. Scientists from Korea's Advanced Institute of Science technology recently finished tests which proved those touch-sensitive displays you use every day on your iPhone can theoretically be used to detect biomolecular material as efficiently as more traditional medical testing equipment.

In plain English, this means the smartphone you're already using could be used for blood analysis, cancer screening, diabetes checking and all manner of other tests. If this research is extended then every doctor the planet using a smartphone will have use of a complete medical testing lab in their pocket.

One potential that is being realized now comes from CellScope, a UC Berkeley project that turns your iPhone's camera into a 5x-60x microscope. Pretty good for blood analysis, with the added benefit that images of the slides can be shared with other professionals for back-up diagnosis and support.

Even Siri's voice-recognition tech has a part to play. Nuance licenses this to Apple and has recently begun marketing a solution which lets doctors input patient information using their voice, with notes then updated within a hospital's electronic medical system. It isn't dumb: it analyses the data, asks relevant questions and more.

Feeling the iPhone effect

What does this mean? Medical intelligence and demographic health data is moving into the cloud. As smartphones and other mobile devices become efficient tools for self-diagnosis and statistical reporting, in future if you're feeling off-color you'll use your iPhone to check yourself out, send the data to the cloud-based medical testing facility which will analyze your information to diagnose your problem, or warn of future problems.

A doctor's role will, in many cases, transform from one of diagnostic clinician to one of treatment, prevention and control.

If it all works out, this is just one of the impacts of Apple's move to put a PC in everyone's pocket with the release of the iPhone. These powerful devices have the potential to transform healthcare, enabling the world's small army of medical pros to treat a growing population.

What are your thoughts on this? Have you come across any radical or interesting healthcare apps or mobile developments? Perhaps you're a medical professional with an experts eye on the potential and the limitations of this new tech on care? If you have anything to share, I urge you to do so in comments below.

Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when these items are published here first on Computerworld.    

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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