Three Ways mHealth Is Changing the World

February 12, 2016
Real-life tricorders are in the works. Could a teleportation device be next? Photo from: live_long_and_prosper.jpg

By Rebecca Rice, 1st-year MSc-GH student

“There's an app for that” is a phrase I hear often, and many people love to use their Fitbit

Wearable technology is helping to bridge the gap between healthcare providers and individuals. The ability to track basic health statistics on a day-to-day basis a great use of technology that nearly everyone around the world has access to.

Would it surprise you to know that more people have access to mobile phones than have access to landline phones, a toothbrush, electricity, and even clean water? After asking our class to brainstorm about the pressing problems in healthcare, that was the first question Dr. Lavanya Vasudevan asked our “Introduction to mHealth” class here at DGHI. Needless to say, this got my mind thinking.

As we began working on our class projects for the semester, I began researching ways that the world is changing through mHealth technologies. 

Here are just a few examples I discovered.

Making Star Trek Technology Real

The Tricorder XPRIZE competition has used Star Trek science fiction to inspire innovation in mHealth—quite literally using the handheld medical tricorder from the show as a springboard for mHealth developments. This next-generation technology can provide a diagnosis without the patient walking into a doctor's office. 

The real-life tricoder is called the “Scanadu Scout,” a finalist in the XPRISE competition. A crowdfunding venture through Indigogo brought this concept to fruition. By pressing the Scanadu to a forehead for several seconds, you can measure temperature, oxygen level, blood pressure and heart rate. It also completes an ECG reading. It doesn’t require a blood pressure cuff or any extra medical equipment—just a smartphone with Bluetooth and the Scanadu app. Next, I hope we'll be seeing a teleportation device!

Virtual Reality for Mental Health 

Virtual reality takes individualized therapy to the next level. It can fabricate scenes from people’s lives to help tackle troubling events or situations they may have experienced, helping them work through their fears and pain by revisiting the situations in the virtual world before tackling them in the real world. This technique could be helpful in addressing the growing burden of global mental health disorders by increasing accessibility to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—a therapy that helps an individual change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors. This type of CBT—called “exposure therapy”—can provide help for individuals suffering from phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and substance use disorders, as well as being used as part of post-stroke therapy. 

The University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies has been working on a virtual reality app to help veterans cope with their military experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Skip Rizzo has developed the virtual reality experiences for veterans; through exposure therapy, he works to emulate the elements that his patient is narrating, even going so far as to include smell to engage people more deeply in their trauma memory. His methods have helped patients confront their fears and learn that they are no longer in a threatening situation. 

mHealth Solutions Customized to the Individual

mHealth and wearables can be customized for an individual's treatment plan. Imagine the possibility of taking a picture of the leg of someone who needs a prosthetic limb and sending that image to a professional who can 3D-print multiple models for production. Forget the long wait time to see your doctor for your medical condition and imagine a smart phone app that gives you the freedom to track your own basic health metrics or an app that is tailored to a rare condition that can evaluate your health status without traveling long distances to see a specialist. With the option of downloading a specialized app to monitor your progress, you may save time and money and spend far less time in the waiting room at doctor’s offices.

However, with all of the advances in the abilities of our smart phones, there are several components that need to be improved, namely optical quality of smart phone cameras, storage space that is secure for sensitive personal health data, and consistent internet access. These are the biggest challenges standing in the way of mHealth becoming part of mainstream healthcare. 

The future of healthcare delivery is in our hands. How are we going use our smart phones and wearables to change the future?