Is the future of health technology already in our hands? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 14.02.2019
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Is the future of health technology already in our hands?

Imagine using a smartphone to detect malaria, eye diseases and monitor drug addiction. With new technology turning smartphones into pocket clinics, it’s all on the table.

When talking about smartphones and our health, we tend to focus on the negatives. Addiction, distraction and dependency are just a few examples. But what about the positive aspects?

Some major advancements in smartphone technology mean they can now be used to carry out complex medical procedures - ranging from eyesight examinations to detecting melanomas and malaria.

With smartphone use now reaching around 39 percent of the global population and 50 percent of the developing world's population, these new technologies have the potential to transform healthcare, especially for people living in rural and poor areas.

Here are just a few inventions taking advantage of the enormous computing power of smartphones — a list that is by no means exhaustive. 

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Detecting eye disease

When it comes to eye examinations, it's usually necessary to use equipment that is bulky and expensive, like the contraptions found in an ophthalmologist's office.

But for several years now, researchers have been experimenting with smartphone cameras to replace traditional ophthalmological screening in areas where it is not available.

With the help of a special attachment, scientists have discovered it is possible to take photos of the back of the human eye using a smartphone camera. 

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Man holding smartphone and putting a hand on his face

The World Health Organization estimates 39 million people in the world are blind, despite the majority of vision impairments being curable and preventable

Recently, a group from the University of Bonn's Eye Clinic in Germany and the Sankara Eye Center in Bangalore, India trialed the technology in a pilot project in Bangalore. They treated 200 patients suffering from diabetes who were at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy — an eye disease that can lead to blindness if left untreated. They found one in five patients showed symptoms of the disease.

While commercial attachments for the cameras usually cost several hundred euros, the Indian ophthalmologists created a very inexpensive version using just a LED light, a battery and adhesive tape. It cost about 50 Indian rupees, which is less than one euro ($1.12).

Although the researchers said the quality of smartphone recordings isn't comparable with that of conventional devices, they are cheap, accessible and can do the job.

Smartphone portable microscope

Mobile microscopes could be vital for people living in underserved regions in the world

Portable microscopes

If you’ve ever seen a microscope in person, you might think your mobile phone is an unlikely candidate for an alternative.

But these mini mobile laboratories are allowing scientists to detect malaria and other infectious diseases on-the-go in underserved remote locations in Africa.

According to researchers, smartphones already have almost all the parts needed to do the work of a microscope. The lens and camera sensor are positioned just like they would be inside a microscope — all that’s required is magnification and illumination. Sounds straightforward, right?

Almost. While existing smartphone microscopes vary in quality (from very high to passable) scientists say the engineering required to assemble these microscopes is fairly advanced, and usually involves a laboratory.

There are some example templates for 3D printable clip-on devices available, which can turn any smartphone into a fully functional microscope, without needing any prisms or illumination lenses.

Smartphone in the foreground, man sleeping in background

Smartphone sonar technology can be used to monitor human breathing patterns from up to one meter away

Preventing overdose

It’s not just the smartphone camera that is revolutionizing mobile health, though — scientists have also harnessed mobile phone sonar technology to help people struggling with opiod addiction.

Inspired by apps targeting sleep apnea, computer scientists from the University of Washington in Seattle have created an app, called Second Chance, that monitors human breathing patterns from up to one meter away. 

It works by emitting sonar sounds (imperceptible to the human ear) that can recognize breathing from up to one meter away. If an opiod user's breathing slows to the point of concern, the app triggers an alarm. And if the user is unresponsive, emergency services are notified.