Today it seems almost everyone owns a smartphone. In fact, there are over 2 billion smartphone users in the world today. And while new smartphones have distributed computing power faster to more people than any technology in history, there haven’t been any huge, step-function advancements in the smartphone market in the last few years.

Mobile s-curve Ben Evans

Sure, incremental gains such as better cameras, faster processors, and more apps and storage space have improved the overall experience, but what major differences are there from the iPhone you had in 2008? We are already starting to see “consumer” mobile and wearable technology driving innovation in medical devices. Fortunately for consumers, particularly those with health conditions, the next big thing in new smartphones could very likely be mobile health (mHealth) and it’s just around the corner.

Smartphones can already measure your activity level (step and calorie counts), heart rate, blood oxygenation, and more, but most people don’t use those features today because they are not very accurate and not part of a more impactful user experience. However, as technology continues to improve, the ability to track health and medical information in greater detail with more accuracy from new smartphones is becoming a reality.

In effect, new smartphones can become mHealth devices. Measuring your blood pressure, detecting skin cancer, or doing a post-operation follow up with your doctor could be just as easy as accessing your Instagram account in the near future.

But why is this important, and how could it change the way we look at healthcare and public health in general? Let’s take a look at a few recent studies on developing biometric medical tracking technology and how it could open up access to care for patients and increase survival rates for certain diseases and illness through early detection.

Access to mHealth Care

As it stands today, there isn’t a reliable way for doctors to monitor basic vital signs like blood pressure and respiration rates without you coming into a healthcare facility. Sure, there are home blood pressure cuffs, but the reliability of the devices and data collection is often questionable. By including biometric health sensors into a smartphone or a wearable device connected to the phone, patients can take clinically accurate vital sign readings from the comfort of their own home without the need for numerous visits to a healthcare facility. For healthcare providers, this makes treatments more efficient and accurate due to the ability to review vitals on a continual basis instead of once every few weeks.

Access to care can also be a problem for individuals living in more remote regions of the world. Instead of having to drive several hours to talk to a doctor for 10 to 15 minutes, new medical biometric technology would enable doctors to treat and diagnosis right from a smartphone. According to MIT Technology Review, one such technology medical professionals may soon be able to use is voice recognition.

By recording voice samples using a smartphone or other biometric wearable, patients will then record short speech samples. This will enable healthcare professionals to analyze vocal cues for tone, pitch, rhythm, and rate, which could indicate certain disease biomarkers. This new technology will also help with diagnosis for “invisible” diseases such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), depression, and other mental health illnesses that are more difficult to diagnose even in a clinical setting. Other conditions like heart disease and coronary artery disease may also be easier to diagnose with voice recognition technology as well, since voice projection is often affected by the hardening of arteries.

In another example showing the potential for new smartphones as mHealth devices, a study published in JAMA Surgery suggests that follow up visits for post-surgical operations such as a mastectomy may soon be a viable solution for most doctors with crammed schedules and busy waiting rooms. Video chat and the ability to send pictures of the surgical site through a smartphone app like QoC Health Inc. will enable patients who are in the process of recovery to cut down on travel time and reduce the amount of discomfort often caused from going back and forth to the doctor’s office.

This ability to communicate virtually will reduce in-clinic visits, improve comfort and convenience for the patient, and in some instances improve the accuracy and efficiency of care.

mHealth Prevention & Early Detection

In addition to being able to use technological advancements such as voice recognition to accurately diagnose heart disease, PTSD, and TBIs, medical professionals may soon be able to use the data from biometric wearables to diagnose certain diseases or illnesses much earlier than might have been possible before.

A new study in the Journal of Nature explains how smartphone technology will soon be able to predict obesity and other health problems based on step counters when used in conjunction with other biometric wearable data. While this may not seem ground breaking, on a larger scale this data could be used to detect wide-spread obesity rates in populations—which could be used to help solve epidemics in certain countries by comparing them to other areas of the world that have more active populations.

Other current studies like those done at Stanford University have shown how new software can detect the early stages of skin cancer by utilizing AI technology to identify patterns in images via a diagnostic app. While this is just one example, more major breakthroughs for preventive medicine are happening every day. For example, the smartphone-connected glucometer released by Dario Health with successful results in 2016 makes it easier for diabetics to test themselves multiple times per day and send data to healthcare professionals in a much easier and efficient manner. The combination of an external device, in this case a glucose monitor to get accurate measurements outside a medical facility, and the mobile phone for data presentation and communication becomes a powerful combination. You can see similar things happening with biometric wearables and mobile phones.

While these developing biometric medical advancements are just the tip of the iceberg, it does provide a glimpse into exactly where medical tracking and healthcare in general is headed in the very near future.

Where Are We Now with mHealth?

One of the major obstacles new medical technology faces is regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While this could create major headaches for smartphone manufacturers, it’s possible that only the biometric sensors within the phone will need certification instead of the entire smartphone going through the FDA certification process. Once these details are ironed out, these new capabilities could begin being pushed through to the consumer.

As for what is happening at Valencell, our PPG-based blood pressure sensing technology is now available. By capturing PPG waves through a finger sensor located on a mobile device, we can accurately detect vital signs like systolic and diastolic blood pressures without the need for a blood pressure cuff or a visit to the doctor’s office. Although it’s just the beginning, this new technology is a good example of what will be possible with accurate, miniaturized biometric sensor systems for medical and health tracking that can be integrated into mobile devices, wearables, hearables, and other form factors.