How Smartphones Are Revolutionizing Diagnostic Medicine

We have covered how smartphones can greatly enhance our lives, not just by being our lifeline to the online world, but also in changing aspects of our physical lives. After investing so much in keeping our smartphones safe, perhaps it is time that we utilize them to keep us safe and healthy.

In this post we are going to look at how medicine is harnessing the power of smartphones, to help detect damage, problems and diseases better, faster and cheaper. Some utilize the built-in cameras and GPS location feature, while others bank on the connectivity of the device to send feedback to professionals for diagnosis.

Not only does this help reduce the costs of healthcare, some of these kits and apps allow for early and fast detection of diseases, and in the process even save lies with early treatment.

Detecting Eye Cancer In Newborns

When taking pictures, we usually come across the red eye problem. Many photo-editing and camera apps have the feature to reduce or remove red eye for you. So it didn’t worry Bryan Shaw much when his wife showed him pictures of their son with one red eye and the other, milky white.


A few months later, Noah was diagnosed with a rare eye cancer called retinoblastoma. Only 8000 children under the age of 5 have it each year, half of which succumb to it. The cancer develops as a tumor at the back of the eye, and reflects off as milky white in digital photos. The condition is called leukocoria or white-eye syndrome.

Bryan found that the symptom had been showing up in Noah’s baby photos since Noah was 12 days old, and his doctor told him if the cancer had been detected then, Noah would have been able to save his right eye – he is otherwise a very healthy and bright boy. Bryan has since teamed up with his son’s doctors and published a paper on how digital photos can help catch the early onset of leukocoria in newborns.

A Mobile EyeCare Clinic

90% of the the visually impaired (and blind) live in poor countries. Most have little to no access to medical aid or hospital care but Dr Andrew Bastawrous has a plan. He is using an app called Peek to help get eye problems diagnosed without the patient having to to leave their homes.

Peek allows healthcare workers to visit folks living in rural areas and run check-ups on their eyesight. From running basic vision eye tests, to scanning the affected eye with the smartphone camera, workers can take, then transmit these images to eye specialists for a diagnosis. Information about the patient’s identity and their location are logged in using the smartphone’s GPS.


When a problem is detected, the patient can be located using Google Map then retrieved and transferred for treatment at a health facility. The idea is being tested on 5000 people in Kenya to see if the process can deliver accurate results. If it works, this will provide a much cheaper alternative (only £300 per phone) and increased accessibility to eyecare for millions of people.

Battling Visual Impairment

Another device is the NETRA, a $2 clip-on eyepiece that you can attach to any smartphone. Together with EyeNetra, an app that can help detect farsightedness, nearsightedness, age-related blurriness, astigmatism, this combination can help detect refractive errors in the human eye. It helps determine if you need glasses, without the need of the regular heavy-duty equipment.


The individual will look through the $2 eye piece and will click on buttons to align patterns that he sees on the smartphone screen. The refractive error is determined by how many clicks the patient requires to align the patterns correctly.

Like Peek, it is being field tested in 14 countries. For more about the project, click here. The team also has one called CATRA which helps detect cataracts in patients.

Fundus Photography

The equipment required for fundus photography, where you take a photo of the interior of the eye, costs up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, it is necessary for opthalmologists to check patients for eye problems. Well, at least it was.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary recently published a paper describing how they were able to take high-quality fundus images using an iPhone 4 or iPhone 5. Along with an app called FiLMiC pro, the researchers could combine an iPhone with a 20D lens and with or without a Koeppe lens to produce fundus images of a patient’s eye even under less than optimum environment settings. The technique is an inexpensive alternative for opthalmologists, and also easy to learn.

Self-Check With Your Smartphone

The fact that more than 1 billion people have smartphones also opens up possibilities to use a smartphone and an app to monitor our conditions. Some of these apps were developed by researchers for the purpose of detecting specific diseases.

Deteriorating Eyesight

FDA-approved myVisionTrack is a monitoring app to help patients of degenerative eye diseases to track their conditions from home. The app allows patients to check their vision using “shape discrimination tests”. ┬áThe tests are deemed to be more accurate than Snellen Charts that are used in clinics and results from these tests can be relayed to their eye doctor via the app, without making a clinic appointment first.

Kidney Damage / Diabetes

Researchers at UCLA have built a device to detect albumin levels in a patient’s urine. The device shines light at a urine sample mixed with flourescent dye; a smartphone app processes the light to detect albumin concentration in urine then transfer the results to the doctors. The whole process takes only 5 minutes and can help diabetics and patients with kidney damage. The device can be produced for $50-$100 per unit.

Urinary Diseases

A similar app called Uchek, lets you detect up to 25 different urinary diseases just by analyzing a picture taken of a color-coded strip soaked in a urine sample. The strips and guide to decipher the resultant colors go for $20, while the app is only $0.99. Aside from being able to detect diabetes, this system allow allows the detection of pre-eclampsia and urinary tract infections.

Wrap Up

These are just a few of the apps that you can use at home, to detect early signs of a disease, or actively monitor the progression of an illness. While they are not to be replaced by an actual doctor or healthcare provider, they can help provide consistent data which could contribute to better, more timely treatment. Plus, owning a smartphone is now more than just about taking that epic selfie.