Creating A Mobile Medical Tool? Start With a Smartphone or Tablet

Some classic medical testing and diagnostic tools are quite affordable and portable, like the stethoscope often looped around a doctor’s neck, or the "pulse-ox" meter that clamps onto the tip of a patient's finger. Others can be the size of a desk, and cost anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousand of dollars, making them difficult to impossible to bring and use in field and remote locations.

Slowly, but surely, smartphones, often combined with wireless broadband phone service, are helping to change this.

HemaApp uses the smartphone's camera to screen for anemia without the need for either a blood draw or requiring a large, expensive machine to non-invasively measure hemoglobin counts.

Just as desktop and notebook PCs enabled a generation of medical device innovators to jump from humongous, expensive, immovable tools, today's innovators get to take advantage of today's even smaller mobile hardware platforms, namely, smartphones and tablets. Most of these devices have far more computing and storage power than their PC predecessors, plus, of course, wireless cellular Internet access.

Additionally, most smartphones and many tablets these days include embedded sensors, which can be used for a growing variety of health and medical diagnostic tests.

For example, in addition to camera and microphone, the Apple iPhone 7 includes:

  • touch ID fingerprint sensor
  • Barometer
  • Three-axis gyro
  • Accelerometer
  • Proximity sensor
  • Ambient light sensor

While the new Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone includes:

  • Iris sensor
  • Pressure sensor
  • Accelerometer
  • Barometer
  • Fingerprint sensor
  • Gyro sensor
  • Geomagnetic sensor
  • Hall sensor
  • HR sensor
  • Proximity sensor
  • RGB Light sensor.

This, combined with their ready availability, pocket portability, and the reality that just about every professional already owns and uses one or more of these devices, makes today's smartphones (and tablets) ideal as the platform for mobile medical devices.

In some cases, these affordable mobile medical tools can replace desk-sized gear that cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. While smartphones and tablets may not provide a full replacement, they offer an in-the-pocket/in-the-field tool that can be good enough – and better than nothing at all – until a patient can be brought in.

Here's a look at some of the current technology, to give you a sense of what's being done, and what can be done. Let's start with a few that use a smartphones' built-in sensors:

HemaApp uses the smartphone's camera to screen for anemia without the need for either a blood draw or requiring a large, expensive machine to non-invasively measure hemoglobin counts.

BiliScreen, recently announced, is intended to screen for pancreatic cancer and other diseases by taking and analyzing selfies, specifically analyzing the sclera (the white part of the eye).

Liftpulse helps neurologists measure and diagnose tremor motions, useful for people with Parkinson's Disease.

Recording and Uploading

"Connected health devices" have their own displays, but connecting them to a smartphone makes it easier to see the readings, and also to save, analyze, and cloud-upload the data.

Connected-health devices include iHealth's iHealth Clear blood pressure monitor and iHealth Air pulse oximeter, and blood pressure monitors, scales, and other devices from Nokia Health (including some formerly under the Withings brand).

Affordable Add-Ons Translate to Mobile, Affordable Medical Tools

Other medical/health tools use add-ons. Most of the ones here are in the $100 to sub-$1,000 range:

AliveCor Kardia Mobile: This $100 two-finger-sensor displays ECG (electrocardiogram) data on your smartphone or tablet.

ThinkLabs One Digital Stethoscope: The device itself doesn't need a smartphone. You can connect audio headphones to it directly but the ThinkLabs ThinkLink cable lets you connect both headphones and a mobile device (or notebook), for use with apps like Thinklabs Stethoscope and Thinklabs iMurmur App.

Welch Allyn iExaminer System includes the PanOptic Ophthalmoscope, which makes it easier to examine patients' eyes, in particular, the "fundus" and the retinal nerve, for conditions including hypertension, diabetic retinopathy, and papilledema. There is also the iExaminer Adapter, which attaches the PanOptic Ophthalmoscope to an iPhone. And finally, the iExaminer app (free and pro versions) which run on the iPhone 6, 6s, or 6 Plus.

EyeNetra is a very inexpensive visual acuity tester, for mobile eye diagnostics or vision screenings.

There are More Nifty Medical Devices in the Works Too

There are some seriously impressive medical-oriented (or medically-useful) smartphone-based products still in development at universities and elsewhere.

The University of Illinois’ sub-$600 TRI (transmission-reflectance-intensity) Analyzer turns your smartphone into a high-performance spectrometer, suitable not just for health diagnostics of blood, urine or saliva samples, but has potential for use in other areas like animal health, food safety, and environmental monitoring.

Another example, researchers at New York City's Columbia Engineering "have developed a low-cost smartphone accessory that can perform a point-of-care test that simultaneously detects three infectious disease markers from a finger prick of blood in just 15 minutes." The dongle, which can easily be attached to a computer, was recently tested in Rwanda and, "performed a point-of-care HIV and syphilis test in Rwanda from finger prick blood in 15 minutes, operated by health care workers trained on a software app."

And upping the game in mobile-phone microscopy, MedGadget reports, "Scientific collaborators from University of California, Los Angeles, Stockholm University, and Uppsala University in Sweden have created a multimodal microscope...capable of targeted DNA sequencing and mutation analysis of living tissues."

This microscope uses an inexpensive lens that fits into a 3D-printed holder, which snaps onto a Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone. The device can be manufactured for under $500, according to MedGadget.

According to the original paper in Nature Communications "using the CMOS imager chips of mobile phone cameras, it is now possible to image tumor samples over large fields of view, with spatial resolution and image quality matching high-end pathology microscopes."

Caution: Creating Medical Apps May Not Be Healthy to Your Success

Even if patients, medical professionals, and investors think you've got a great idea, that doesn't guarantee your medical product will succeed in the market.

A number of the mobile medical apps and devices that I have read about, and written about, over the past few years don't appear to have made it to market –  and some did, but are no longer available. However, if nothing else, you can always use your smartphone as a reflex-testing hammer to bang on a patient's knee.

Want more product design tips to help ensure your product makes it to market? Check this out