In this article, we look at mobile-based health applications. Smartphones are already being used to support healthcare services, to make healthcare information more easily accessible even when we’re on-the-go and applications are available that measure biometric information such as heart rate and stress levels. In this article, we explore mobile healthcare applications and look at what the future might bring for mobile health.
NHS Direct is the UK’s initiative to provide “expert health advice, information and reassurance” around the clock. Initially available in 1998 as a telephone helpline, NHS Direct services are now available online and on smartphone devices as an application. Available freely on the iPhone and Android smartphones, the NHS Direct application features a “Health and symptom checker”. This is a self-guided questionnaire which aims to diagnose your symptoms before providing a recommendation for what you should do e.g. whether you should see a doctor. For users of other mobile operating systems such as Windows Phone and BlackBerry, it is possible to access NHS Direct through your web browser at mobile.nhsdirect.nhs.uk.
The NHS also provides a Drink Tracker application for iPhone users. This allows you to keep track of your alcohol consumption and the number of units being consumed. Personalised feedback is provided on whether you are exceeding your recommended daily limit for alcohol consumption.
Alternatively if you’re looking to stop smoking, the NHS Quit Smoking application for iPhone provides easy access to resources such as tips, tricks and case studies on quitting smoking. It also keeps track of how long you’ve stopped smoking for and how much money you’ve managed to save so far.
Measuring heart rate, breathing rate and stress levels with your smartphone
One of the impressive uses of smartphone technology has been to measure biometric information such as heart rate and breathing rate using the on-board camera. We covered some of these applications in our New Year’s guide to fitness & exercise applications.
The ‘Instant Heart Rate’ application for iPhone (69p) and Android (free) measures your heart rate by looking at small changes in the colour of your finger as blood is pumped around the body. Based on the same principles as a medical pulse oximeter, the application is utilised by placing your finger over the smartphone camera lens whilst the LED flash is used as a source of illumination.
iPad owners can instead use the “Philips Vital Signs” application (69p). Vital Signs is able to measure your heart rate and breathing rate using skin colour changes and chest movements. It uses the front-facing camera on the iPad 2.
The ‘Stress Check’ application for iPhone (69p) and Android (free) takes things one step further by using your smartphone to measure psychological stress levels. The application uses the same methods employed by ‘Instant Heart Rate’ to measure your pulse but takes a much longer reading of around 2 minutes so that heart rate variability can be determined. Low heart rate variability implies high stress levels whereas high heart rate variability indicates a state of calm. The application reports your stress level as a percentage and records it in a diary. By looking back over a series of stress level measurements, it may be possible to determine the environmental factors which are causing stress so that they can be reduced or eliminated from your daily routine.
Crowdsourcing public health information: Asthmapolis
Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition affecting 5% of the world’s population. Asthma sufferers sometimes experience difficulties breathing with asthma attacks potentially being triggered by a range of possible environmental factors such as pollution.
The Asthmapolis project helps asthma sufferers to monitor their condition and helps public health officials to find the triggers of asthma attacks. Asthmapolis consists of a GPS-enabled chip which is embedded inside an asthma inhaler. Each time the inhaler is used, the time and current location as determined through GPS is recorded. The chip inside the inhaler can communicate with a smartphone over Bluetooth which will then report back information about the asthma attack over a 3G connection. Public health officials are able to monitor asthma attacks reported by Asthmapolis users in real-time. By looking for where asthma attacks are clustered together, it becomes possible to find the pollution hotspots which cause asthma attacks. Patients will also benefit through automated monitoring of their asthma condition and the ability to determine which locations cause their symptoms to worsen.
The Future of Mobile Healthcare
So far in this article, we’ve explored a range of smartphone applications that help you to access information about your health and applications that allow you to measure your heart rate, breathing rate and stress levels. We’ve also looked at Asthmapolis – an application that uses crowdsourcing to determine the triggers for asthma symptoms. These applications show the potential of mobile phones in healthcare, but are likely only the beginning.
A few weeks ago, we discussed mobile technology in developing countries and looked at specifically at mobile healthcare in developing countries. We looked at services such as India’s Tele-Doc which allowed remote diagnosis and treatment and the Episurveyor application which allows the spread of diseases to be monitored. Services such as these will continue to be developed, both for use in the UK and abroad.
Work is also on the way to develop smartphone-based technologies to monitor medical conditions such as malaria. The Lifelens project consists of a smartphone application and a 350x magnification lens which is placed over your smartphone camera lens. With the combination of the application and the specialist lens, it is hoped that a low-cost method of malaria detection can be developed.
Mobile phones can help to improve our health in one of three main ways:
By providing easy access to healthcare information, wherever we are.
Allowing us to take health measurements on our smartphone, without the need for specialist equipment.
Collecting health information and crowdsourcing its collection so that it can be used to improve health for everyone. (e.g. Asthmapolis)
Are you a fan of mobile-based healthcare applications? Do you currently use applications such as ‘NHS Direct’ or ‘Stress Check’? Are there any smartphone-based health applications that you’d like to see in the future? How do you think your smartphone could help you to live a healthier life? We’d love to hear your thoughts… please drop us a comment below!