Apple’s iPhone has gotten people using the Internet and apps more than any other phone. Could it also become a mainstream tool for medicine?Medicine is, after all, something that Apple has been trying to influence since the 1990s. Before its discontinuation, the Newton platform was distributed to health workers and doctors. But more recently, Apple is hoping that its newer iPhone and iPad can play a role in science and medicine.
Apple has devoted valuable stage time at its events to medical health applications, such as developers demonstrating blood pressure devices connecting to the iPhone through Bluetooth, and iPhone-enabled glucose testing — after a patient pricks his finger, the meter can transmit the data to an iPhone app via Bluetooth or a dock connector.
The big shift is that Apple’s portable devices have gotten lighter, cheaper, and much more powerful, and the software apps they can run have gotten much more sophisticated, with access to always-on wireless Internet.
So what’s the iPhone’s place in medicine today? And what will it become?
We reached out to some experts, and it appears the field of mobile medicine, or “mhealth,” is still in its early stages, but developing.
In the presence of mobile phones, healthcare may soon become more “citizen-centered,” according to Patricia Mechael, Columbia University’s Director of Strategic Application of Mobile Technology for Public Health and Development.
What does that mean? Treatments can be tailored to individual patients, who can then access health information, consult with physicians, and manage their own prevention through a range of mobile phone apps.
But for now, the most widely used health apps are “faddy” wellness apps, according to McKinsey & Co. Principal Lisa Ellis. These include simple fitness and weight loss trackers. (Click here to flip through 10 health-related iPhone apps.)Some apps — less than 5%, Ellis estimates — allow patients to manage chronic diseases. For example, reminding patients to take their pills, monitoring and relaying glucose levels to a call centre, and tracking cardiac arrhythmia to prevent heart attacks.
But the real future growth will be in physician centered apps for both the iPad and iPhone, Ellis predicts. Today, these include data entry, reference, and decision aids. Some apps aid in remote care — doctors can send photos to a consulting centre and receive treatment advice, while others guide doctors through protocol.
Phoenix’s Mayo Clinic is one of the few hospitals currently wired for mHealth; Ellis estimates only one or two per cent of hospitals are. The Mayo Clinic has released a couple of its own iPhone apps, and urologist Murray Feldstein says some doctors and patients use pill reminders and residents use medical reference apps.
He also thinks the iPad may end up more useful for telemedicine — basically, practicing medicine through video chats — than the iPhone, because of its bigger screen.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of challenges to mHealth, of course.
One specific challenge: As Columbia’s Mechael points out, “the rules [for mHealth] are different if the doctor isn’t there because they can’t actually see the patient.” If a dermatologist diagnoses a patient over a screen and is misled by the screen’s resolution, who is liable? And how are doctors billed if they give remote care on-the-go?
Another obstacle to patient centered mHealth services, she explains, is a lengthy process for FDA approval and healthcare reimbursement; it’s easier to get approval for apps that streamline physician’s work instead of apps that manage chronic disease.
Such regulations have led to a “gaming” of the system, Mechael noted — some mobile apps intended for health and wellness have been presented as games, whose approval criteria are less stringent.
And Apple’s iPhone platform isn’t, of course, the only place for mHealth innovation. According to Ellis, Cisco is testing out some high-end “health pods” for two way video conferencing, for example.
Patients could potentially walk into this pod, take blood, undergo tests, and send all of the material for analysis somewhere else. This ultra-expensive version is working its way through FDA approval and reimbursement, which could take several years. But who knows — by then, you might have a mobile phone that could do the same thing.
The current reality: Although software companies are churning out mHealth apps for Apple’s platforms, it’ll still be a while before the iPhone becomes a mainstream medical tool, if ever.
Dentists can use DDS GP to demonstrate procedures and diagnoses. It contains drawings, sketches, x-rays, and photos, and users can upload their own images into demonstrations. The app is $399.99 from iTunes.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.