Mobile Future

Mobile Medicine

Mobile phones and the future of public health are converging in ways never imagined.

I read recently about one mobile application being advanced by a visionary group of engineers at the University of California at Berkeley which may well revolutionize – and democratize — the world of medical diagnostics.

Their idea is to harness the technology and ubiquity of the mobile phone as a platform for medical imaging, and make it accessible potentially to literally billions of people around the world.

"According to the World Health Organization, some three-quarters of the world’s population has no access to ultrasounds, X-rays, magnetic resonance images, and other medical imaging technology used for a wide range of applications, from detecting tumors to confirming tuberculosis infections to monitoring developing fetuses.", according to Science Daily.  And this is where Boris Rubinksy, a UC professor of bioengineering and his team come in.

 The team has developed a new technique which would allow a mobile phone to be used as a medical imaging viewer, so medical personnel in the field can retrieve a variety of medical images at points of care where more expensive hardware is not available.  This would mean that any healthcare provider can view a variety of medical diagnostic tools – from X-rays to ultrasounds to magnetic resonance imaging — anywhere at anytime.

"Medical imaging is something we take for granted in industrialized countries," said Rubinsky, UC Berkeley professor of bioengineering and mechanical engineering and head of the team that developed this new application for cell phones. "Imaging is considered one of the most important achievements in modern medicine. Diagnosis and treatment of an estimated 20 percent of diseases would benefit from medical imaging, yet this advancement has been out of reach for millions of people in the world because the equipment is too costly to maintain. Our system would make imaging technology inexpensive and accessible for these underserved populations."

As a demonstration of the application of cell phones for medical imaging, Rubinsky and his colleagues, Antoni Ivorra, and Yair Granot, have focused their first field test on electrical impedance tomography (EIT), which creates images of electrical currents in diseased tissue.  Using commercially available parts to acquire electrical current data from patients, the team was able to upload the data to a cell phone via a USB, and the reconstruct the data for viewing on the cell phone.

The results of their test, which were supported by the National Institutes of Health, The Israeli Science Foundation, and Florida Hospital in Orlando, were reported in the open access journal, Public Library of Science ONE (PLoS ONE), and suggested by the authors that simulated tumors were visible in the cell phone image.

If and when this new approach to using cell phones as a way to facilitate medical diagnoses develops on a broader scale, medically underserved areas around the world could have a viable and accessible means to bring advanced medical diagnostics to patient care where it has not previously been available, or affordable.

Much work remains for Rubinsky and his team, as well as for other innovative mobile phone initiatives, to successfully harness the attributes of cellular technology and deploy them for improving public health.  But this new effort is indicative of the exciting efforts underway in the broader world of mobile phone technology, and the remarkable convergence underway between mobile technology and meeting important human needs.