June 27th, 2010
Mobility is perhaps the most important change in computing in the past 50 years. Advances in speed, power, storage, and communications all become that much more important when they’re able to be used on the fly. From shrinking computers to powerful smartphones, mobile technology has also had an amazing impact on the medical field, and it’s revolutionized the way medical professionals work, from world-class hospitals down to nursing schools. Here are 10 trends in mobile medical technology that are rewriting the rulebooks.
- Using cell phones to detect airborne toxins: Cell phones are everywhere these days, and I do mean everywhere: There are 4.6 billion of them in the world as of February 2010. Because of that, some scientists want to use a chip that can be embedded in cell phones to detect any dangerous chemicals that might be in the air, which would subsequently help them map their source and cause. The sensors are made of silicon and change color when they’re exposed to certain chemicals, in effect giving your cell phone a high-tech nose. It’s a brilliant way to harness an existing network for medical gain.
- Pay with your phone: Identity fraud is more prevalent than ever in a digital age, but some researchers are looking for ways to buck that by letting people make payments for goods and services — including medical treatments — with their cell phones. Some computer networks aren’t safe, and paper cheques remain easy to forge, but payment via cell phone would allow you to visit your doctor and make a payment using a highly encrypted program that safely stores and transmits your data without letting a third party interfere. The system creates a unique code for each transaction that the payer and payee verify, and a match means the transaction is protected. This can greatly reduce paperwork for medical payments and also speed up visits to the doctor’s office.
- Medical records on cell phones: Advances in phone technology have drastically changed the way we communicate on the go, but while most people think of smartphones primarily as ways to send text and video messages, medical professionals are using them to get a look at your health records. Using phones to download, transmit, and organize medical records can greatly reduce clerical errors and make it easier for doctors to learn your medical history quickly and easily.
- Using cell phones to monitor physical activity: Obesity is a terrible problem in the United States, thanks to entrenched methods of poor eating and low exercise. Weight issues lead to heart disease, diabetes, and hosts of other problems that are best fought by starting early and attacking the source. However, some medical professionals are working on ways to let people use their cell phones to monitor physical activity and weight loss. The Walk n’Play iPhone app makes a game of basic movement, providing a score and statistics for users based on how often they walk around while carrying their phones. It’s a smart way to encourage incremental but noticeable changes in the habits of someone with a weight problem: Instead of forcing them to suddenly begin a grueling exercise routine, they’re eased into it by earning points for being more active in general.
- Using tablet computers: Contrary to popular belief, the iPad isn’t the only tablet on the market. Smaller computers designed for getting work done without being tethered to a desk have been gaining traction for years, and the Motion C5v is the latest example. Tablet PCs can be tailored to meet a number of specific but vital needs for medical pros, whether it’s taking pictures of a patient or scanning the barcode on their bracelet to access their health information. Medical-oriented tablets are also designed to be used in high-impact situations that doctors deal with on a daily basis, which makes them sturdier than traditional laptops and far easier to tote around. Tablets aren’t the future of medicine; they’re the present.
- Using cell phones for diagnosis: This is pretty cool: Smartphones are now letting doctors make diagnoses remotely, thanks to advances in software. Right now, the tech is devoted to the early diagnosis and treatment of appendicitis. Typical timelines for diagnosis increase the risk of a rupture because of inevitable delays, but transmitting images of the abdominal area over an encrypted network and then viewing them with special software made for the iPhone meant doctors were able to provide accurate diagnoses much more quickly, which reduced the risk of rupture and helped get surgery plans started sooner. The tech provides for accurate, speedy delivery of images, and it’s programs like this one that are slowly but surely changing the way doctors do business.
- A “health Internet”: A pair of doctors at Harvard got the ball rolling on this one, and a fall 2009 conference ran with it. The original premise is to design a platform similar to the iPhone that would serve as an infrastructure for health professionals. Researchers are pushing the government to expand a National Health Information Network that brings consumer health organizations into the process and help speed up the process by which patient data is transferred. A national archive of health data would vastly improve health services by cutting down on repetitive forms and ensuring that a patient’s health history was accurately and thoroughly communicated between health professionals in different cities and states.
- Telehealth: Unlike tech aimed at specific diseases, the idea of “telehealth” is a trend that’s moving toward lower-cost health care enabled by mobile communication and video. Laptops, tablets, and (with the iPhone 4) smartphones are capable of video conferencing, and that remote version of a face-to-face chat is a great way for medical professionals to “visit” and chat with patients even though they might be far apart. For patients with difficulties traveling, this makes it easier to go to the doctor, and it also reduces transportation and office costs for all involved. What’s more, the tech can be integrated with peripheral devices to provide up-to-date vital signs and medical history. The video aspect brings a human touch to remote diagnosis, and is expected to help the process gain new popularity.
- Using cell phones to replace all hospital communications: The hospital PA system is a constant source of background noise (so much so that the 1980s TV series “St. Elsewhere” parodied the device by having the PA system page fictional doctors from other series). However, the blaring speakers are quickly becoming an outdated means of communicating thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones. As a result, medical research has shown that doing away with the PA system and other outmoded habits and relying almost exclusively on smartphones for intra-hospital communication reduces confusion, increases efficiency, and saves money, all of which make for a better-staffed and more profitable hospital. Instead of juggling multiple systems — intercoms, pagers, phones, etc. — health care centers are trending toward using doctors’ cell phones as central tools in their communication flow.
- Mobile X-ray machines for disaster relief: True, an X-ray machine might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of mobile medicine, but that’s the point: These new devices are being redefined thanks to advances in power and portability. The earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 is a perfect example of a situation that demands this kind of medical mobile technology. The hundreds of thousands of injured residents were in need of immediate and accurate medical care, and that often meat getting X-rays quicker than conventional methods would allow. As a result, mobile X-ray units were dispatched to help medical professional meet the needs of the wounded. Look for this trend to grow as mobile power sources become more prevalent and as medical technology places a greater premium on portability.
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