A Doctor in Your Pocket: Mobile Phone-based Innovations Revealed at the mHealth Summit

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By: Raji Mohanam,

Over the course of the mHealth Summit in Washington D.C., I saw and heard about some amazing new mobile phone-based tools that have the potential to dramatically improve–even revolutionize– global health. In fact, many of them were unveiled and launched during the conference. These innovations move us closer to an era when we may all have a “doctor in our pocket”!

Below are some descriptions of these amazing tools and links to more information about them.

NETRA, created by scientists at MIT, is a smart phone-based vision test that you can give yourself whenever and wherever you are! The NETRA itself is a device that attaches to your cell phone so you can assess eyeglass prescription. All you need to do is look into the NETRA lens through the cell phone display and align the displayed pattern on the screen. Since light rays from this pattern pass through different regions of the eye, the alignment task gives a measure of the optical distortions in the various regions of the eye. You repeat this procedure for a few different patterns and presto, the system computes the corresponding refractive error for myopia, hyperopia and astigmatism!

This innovation provides hope to many remote, under-served adults and children in the developing world who currently do not have access to eye exams.

Mobisante, based in Redmond, Washington, has developed a small portable mobile phone-based ultrasound device. The device can be used to view ultrasound images/data on the display screen of the phone. The device can be used by healthcare workers directly where an ultrasound machine is not available. As well, it can also be used by non-experts and, potentially, even by patients themselves to transmit images and data to a clinic or healthcare provider for remote diagnosis and monitoring. At scale, the cost is estimated to be less than one dollar per exam! The obvious implications for maternal health in low-resource settings are tremendous and exciting.

BugLabs, based in New York City, has come up with “Bug”–a modular software system on a mobile phone platform. The system allows you to attach various devices to your cell phone to build a customized tool that meets your specific needs.  The system has already been used to create customized tools such as heat detectors for firemen, GPS-based alarm clocks, provider-patient appointment reminders, remote patient biometrics monitors, pacemaker monitors, air pollution detectors, and surveillance motion trackers. The potential applications for global health are immense and are limited almost only by our own creativity.

Cell Scope, at UC Berkeley, has developed a microscope device that you simply attach to a mobile phone to take it ‘on the road’!  This microscopy-enabled cell phone can then be used to analyze blood or sputum specimens anywhere in the world. The device relies on your cell phone’s camera to turn it into a microscope with 5x-50x magnification. Your phone is then capable of analyzing smears to detect TB, malaria, and many other diseases. Data captured from these analyses is then read by the healthcare provider who is present or transmitted to a clinic or doctor anywhere in the world for remote diagnosis. Imagine the implications for quick and accurate diagnosing of pregnant women in remote areas of the world who are infected with malaria or other deadly parasites.

All these innovative tools have creatively and successfully  leveraged the power of a mobile phone as their platform. It is certainly an exciting time for global health! Stay tuned to the MHTF to keep abreast of these and other emerging mobile phone technologies as they improve maternal health around the world.

Let us know how your organization is using mobile phones to improve maternal health!