MOST PEOPLE HEAD TO THEIR DOCTORS IF THEY HAVE CHEST PAIN or a suspicious lump, but signs like these often appear too late. Catching symptoms earlier requires ongoing monitoring—the kind of thing a cell phone might do. Health-scanning systems that exploit the continuous flow of data from cell phones could help eliminate the perilous lag time between the onset of symptoms and diagnosis. Mobile devices could also help care providers identify and treat problems before they become too serious—and too expensive—to address effectively. In theory, such always-on warning systems could slash the 75 percent of health care spending used for chronic disease management and extend life spans by staving off millions of potential health crises.
The mobile marketplace is glutted with health apps that are little more than gimmicks, but a few standout systems promise to help users manage chronic conditions or identify red-flag symptoms. AliveCor's iPhone ECG, a plastic phone case that is slated for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in early 2012, has two metal electrodes on the back of the case that record heart rhythms whenever users hold the device in both hands or press it against their chest. This real-time electrocardiography (ECG) data can be beamed wirelessly to patients, family members and doctors, alerting them to any heart rhythm irregularities. “It doesn't just give people an early warning but also gives it without the cost associated with conventional ECG tools,” says the device's developer, biomedical engineer David Albert. Similarly, French company Withings has developed a blood pressure–monitoring device that works with the iPhone. After users don the sleek white cuff, a reading pops up on the phone's screen within 30 seconds; if the reading is abnormal, a warning also appears. And WellDoc's FDA-approved diabetes application, DiabetesManager, allows patients to enter a variety of real-time data into their phones, such as blood glucose levels, carbohydrates consumed and diabetes medicines taken. The software analyzes all these factors and supplies patients with a recommended action to keep sugar levels in a healthy range (take insulin, eat something). A trial published in September showed that DiabetesManager users have significantly better long-term glucose control than nonusers.