Take Two Pills and Charge Me in the Morning

Health and medical mobile apps are booming. But what happens when they shift from tracking data to diagnosing diseases?

health mobile apps

So this is what a 21st century tricorder looks like? Photo courtesy of Scanadu

It was a moment that would have brought a smile–a sardonic one, of course–to the face of Bones McCoy.

Last week, the California-based firm Scanadu announced that by the end of next year, it will begin selling a device called Scout. The little gadget, which fits in the palm of your hand, will, in conjunction with your smartphone, be able to tell you your temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and the level of oxygen in your blood–all within 10 to 15 seconds.

In other words, it will be the closest thing we’ll have to that bulky but nifty tricorder that McCoy wielded so deftly as chief medical officer on the Starship Enterprise back in the glory days of Star Trek. Which is the point, because Scanadu is one of the competitors for the $10 million award in Qualcomm’s Tricorder X Prize.

Scanadu is already making comparisons to the innovation of the family thermometer back in the 19th century, an invention that gave people the opportunity to gather health data at home. They may be right about that.

Most doctors would certainly agree that this is a good thing, in that it will make it ridiculously easy for a person to check his vitals every day. In theory it would, like the thermometer, let people know if they have a health problem without attempting to explain what it might be.

Playing doctor

But then there’s this tagline on the Scanadu website: “Sending your smartphone to med school.” Sure, it’s meant as a clever, pithy pitch. But it also raises a notion that makes a lot of people in the medical community very uneasy about where this boom in health and medical apps is headed.

When does gathering data slide into making diagnoses or even promising cures? And if it does, who’s going to ensure that any of this is based on real science?

Apparently, a lot of what’s out there now isn’t. Last month, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting released the results of its analysis of 1,500 health mobile apps that cost money. It’s not a pretty picture.

The reporters found that more than 20 percent of the apps they reviewed claim to treat or cure medical problems. Of those 331 therapeutic apps, nearly 43 percent relied on cellphone sound for treatments. Others promised results using a cellphone’s light and a few pitched the power of phone vibrations. Scientists told the journalists that none of the above could possibly treat the conditions in question.

There’s no longer an app for that

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to soon announce how it plans to regulate medical apps. It’s not likely to worry about the thousands of health apps that allow people to track their workouts or their daily calorie counts or how they slept. But it will look closely at apps that are promoted as a way to diagnose or treat a disease or condition.

By its latest count, there are now almost 18,000 health and fitness apps and more than 14,500 medical apps. As cautious as the feds have been has been about getting into the business of regulating software, they haven’t been able to ignore a few of the more egregious examples of mobile app magical thinking.

Last year the Federal Trade Commission banned the sale of two apps that promised to cure acne.

And that’s why they call it a smartphone

Here are other recent examples of mobile tech transforming the field of medicine:

  • Is it the blue pill or the red pill?: Microsoft has jumped into the medical apps business by joining with NextGen Healthcare to develop, for Windows 8, an app called NextGen MedicineCabinet. It will allow people to create and store a detailed digital record of their prescription medications and be able to share it with doctors and hospitals when necessary. It also will let health care providers identify potentially harmful drug interactions.
  • Will it tell you if you’re watching “Cops” too much? California startup Lark Technologies has launched a product it calls larklife–wristbands with sensors that work with an iPhone to track your daytime activities–calories burned, distance traveled, steps taken, food eaten–and your nighttime–how you slept. Then it provides you with tips during the day based on what your data says. For instance, if you don’t sleep as much as usual, it might point out that it’s a good idea to eat breakfast. Or it might congratulate you for a big fitness accomplishment, such as walking 1,000 steps in one day.
  • Because it’s so hard to show surgery on stick people: A company called Visible Health has created a product called DrawMD, a series of free iPad apps that allow surgeons to explain surgical processes to their patients. Instead of scratching out a crude pencil sketch on a notepad, doctors can use digital anatomical images in the apps, which they can sketch or type on to illustrate a medical procedure.
  • Is there a doctor in the house? HealthTap, with a large searchable doctor directory–complete with ratings, peer-reviews, and the ability to book appointments–plus a popular health Q&A feature, has been a player in the medical apps world for awhile. And last week it got even bigger, buying Avvo Health, another medical Q&A service with a network of physicians. That expands HealthTap’s Medical Expert Network to more than 30,000 American doctors and dentists.
  • But does it send an alert when he needs a massage? It’s about time. Last week Japanese tech giant Fujitsu announced the launch of Wandant, a device that attaches to a dog’s collar and keeps track of how many steps it takes during a day. It also measures the dog’s temperature and comes with an online diary where owners can record what their furry overlord has eaten, what it weighs and the condition of its stool.

Video bonus: Yes, there are a lot of fitness videos out there, but few make running as much fun as Zombies, Run! Hear from the diabolical minds who created it.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Smartphone as doctor

Medicine Goes Small

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