What if you no longer had to go to the doctor’s office for your appointments? What if all of your lab tests could be done at home, on your own time? What if you had continuous access to all of your vital health information? These questions are becoming less of a “what if” and more of a reality with the emergence of the field of mobile health.
Recent years have seen an extraordinary amount of innovation in the health sector, especially related to technology. This has manifested in mobile health (sometimes nicknamed mHealth), where small-scale mobile devices are being designed to function quickly, without hassle and more accurately. Capabilities can range from monitoring to imaging to lab analysis.
Although it was not difficult or burdensome to measure key health indicators in the past, new technology has allowed for the ability to monitor these indicators all at once through a single, portable device. Zephyr, for example, manufactures the BioHarness, which is strapped onto a person’s chest and can monitor heart rate and breathing and measure heart rhythm through an echocardiogram (ECG). Collected data are then wirelessly transferred onto a phone app and can be used for any conditions that may be interesting or relevant to monitor. For example, the BioHarness can be used to keep track of the body in daily exercise routines or to measure vital signs if an individual has an emergency.
Other devices go beyond mere monitoring and are able to perform more sophisticated tasks. An incredibly innovative example of this is the artificial pancreas device system (APDS) that is currently in the process of FDA review. A sensor is inserted under the skin that regularly monitors glucose levels and transmits that information to a receiver. That information is then relayed to a phone app, which calculates the correct dose of insulin needed and automatically activates a pump that releases the required amount.
This device is an extremely promising solution for diabetes patients, who are physiologically unable to produce enough insulin to allow glucose to be used by cells. Management of diabetes usually entails guesswork as to the level of insulin that should be used, leaving ample room for error and the associated complications. The continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) component of APDS allows for real-time data that allows for accurate calculation of insulin needed.
It is unquestionable that devices such as the Zephyr Bioharness and the artificial pancreas delivery system will be transformational for the world of medicine. Individuals do not have to go through the hassle of a trip to the doctor’s office in order to see their important information and share it with their doctors. The simplicity of the machinery itself will also be incredibly convenient for patients, offering the possibility of hiding these devices under one’s clothes and carrying on with daily life.
Despite the promise of these devices, there are pitfalls as well, as discussed in a recently published article in Science. For one, there is concern about what will happen with the recorded information. Will data be properly secured such that it remains private to only those allowed to access it — i.e. patient and doctor? It will be important to ensure that mobile health apps are fully secured before these apps are widely adopted. Secondly, it will be important to figure out how to systematically integrate certain useful devices, such as the APDS, into the health care system. The mobile health sector seems to be emerging as an especially useful and interesting way of further personalizing medicine and of increasing the convenience of medical care. Although barriers remain, the field has made tremendous progress in a short amount of time.
For more on specific mobile health interventions, see the top “9 devices that are changing medicine”.