Not feeling well? Maybe your smartphone can help. But you don't need it to call your doctor.
Developers are creating more medical apps every day that have turned our phones into portable healthcare tools. But are those apps medical breakthroughs or a Pandora's box of problems?
Doctors at the University of Washington are grappling with this issue right now. They're working on some projects that could revolutionize healthcare, especially in developing countries.
But that revolution includes our country as well, which is why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now getting involved. The FDA is trying to regulate a new world of health-care apps that's changing by the minute.
The impact of Dr. Buddy Ratner's latest work, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is hard to describe.
“We loosely call it the magic wand,” Dr. Ratner said. It's relatively simple physics. Electricity reacts with a flow of gas to create a glowing, low-temperature plasma. The plasma breaks off a few molecules from a sample of bodily fluid and sends them through a machine that measures the major nutrients on a computer tablet in three minutes.
Normally, this process takes a tube and a half of blood and 24 hours of analysis. So, for developing countries, this “plasma pen” truly could be magic. As Dr. Gaetano Boriello explained, “in Tanzania, there’s one doctor for every 50,000 people.”
Dr. Boriello studies how technology like Dr. Ratner’s can help in places with few medical resources. He says the plasma pen, which is planned to be an app for a smartphone, will be a powerful tool for social workers who often only get one chance to help someone.
“In very poor, rural, even nomadic communities, finding that same patient again can be a hell of a chore sometimes,” Boriello said. “And so having that result right there onsite is really important.”
But what could save lives in Africa could complicate our lives here in the United States. That’s part of the reason why the FDA is stepping in.
Dr. Ratner explained, “There's a set of standards—guidelines that the FDA has that help companies develop products in a safe way.”
The FDA is trying to regulate any app that would make your smartphone a medical device or an accessory to one. Its regulation Dr. Ratner would welcome as a way to make sure a tool like his plasma pen, once it becomes an app for your phone, would be used responsibly.
“I think what it has to do is give useful information. If it gives un-useful information it will create panics,” Dr. Ratner said. “It will create more need for the health system, more demands on the health system, more cost to this already quite expensive system.”
To learn more about the different health apps on the market right now—from those that make your phone into an ultrasound machine to those that can monitor the effect of medication on breast milk—follow this link to the FDA’s Mobile Medical Apps page. You can also comment to federal regulators about how these proposed guidelines should be put in place.