Monday, August 6, 2012

In the News: Smartphone Apps Now Playing Doctor

Here comes Jack Kirby's Mother Box.

By Laura Ruane

USA Health app developers initially focused on consumer diet and exercise, said Brian Dolan, editor of Boston-based, which tracks advances in mobile health and medical technology. "Now we're seeing them look into more serious health conditions where there's a real need for innovation."

Glen Stream, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, sees an "explosion" of mobile medical apps, and gives the trend a qualified endorsement. He's an "iPhone guy" who uses about 20 medical or health-oriented apps.

"People want to be empowered to take care of their health," Stream said. The devices and apps, Stream said, "certainly are not going to replace the need for a collaborative relationship with a family physician."

One of the latest device-and-app creations to pass muster with the federal Food and Drug Administration is iBGStar, a blood glucose meter that attaches to iPhones or iPads for diabetes monitoring. It's a product of Bridgewater, N. J.-based Sanofi, and sells at Apple retail stores and Walgreens drugstores for about $100 and $75, respectively.

Seattle-based Internet marketer James Daugherty snapped one up in the first week, and promptly tweeted about it to his Twitter followers who have diabetes.

"Not only does the app give you great information, the device is very small, about one-fourth to one-sixth the size of my old (blood glucose) monitor," said Daugherty, a 33-year-old snowboarding and cycling enthusiast.

Several other smartphone-based medical monitoring devices are in various developmental stages:

Heart-EKG uses the iPhone's microphone or camera flash to calculate users' average number of heartbeats per minute or to take their pulse, after placing the phone over an artery, and activating the app. Dallas-based Surich Technologies says the app is handy for aerobic workouts, but isn't intended as a lifesaving monitoring device. It's downloadable from iTunes, for $2.99.

The iHealth Wireless Blood Pressure Wrist Monitor, expected on the market in September, measures users' blood pressure directly from their iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Its app records systolic/diastolic numbers, heart rate and pulse wave, and can chart blood pressure readings, says Karyn Anderson, spokeswoman for Mountain View, Calif.-based iHealth Lab.

AliveCor Heart Monitor has developed an electrode-studded cellphone case that turns the iPhone 4 into an electrocardiogram device that users hold in their hands or place on their chests to detect irregular heart rhythms. Combined with the app, the monitor can analyze, transmit and store an ECG reading for diagnosis.

The heart monitor has been through several clinical trials, said physician David Albert, the device's inventor and co-founder of San Francisco-based AliveCor. He hopes to introduce it for veterinarians' use for dogs, cats and horses later this summer. The device doesn't yet have FDA approval.

A cellphone-based E. coli sensor for water and other fluids is under development by a University of California-Los Angeles research team. Commercial manufacture of the system, which uses a lightweight attachment to the phone's camera, could be only two years away, said team leader Aydogan Ozcan, a UCLA associate professor for electrical engineering.

San Francisco-based CellScope's otoscope attaches to the phone's camera lens and will enable parents to photograph their child's eardrum, and e-mail the images to medical professionals checking for an ear infection. CEO Erik Douglas says he hopes to get this to market in about a year.

Contributing: Ruane also reports for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla.

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