As cognitive and cloud computing continue to advance, and mobile technologies become more accessible across the globe, innovative apps and mobile attachments are using algorithms to replace the need for complex and time-consuming diagnostic tests

Mobile healthcare—also known as mHealth—is attracting plenty of research dollars as entrepreneurs look for ways improve consumers’ access to various medical services in ways that could reduce healthcare costs. For that reason, some mHealth solutions may be used by clinical laboratories and pathology groups to give patients faster access to diagnostic services and information about medical laboratory tests.

Most mHealth solutions excel at doing a single, defined task well. In some cases, they are faster and as accurate as human-based testing or observation. However, few solutions can tackle complex diagnostics, such as determining the pathogens involved in sepsis. And mHealth cannot replace the human element of communication and empathy, which will always have a place in the medical process.

Nevertheless, by using point-of-care testing devices, algorithms, and cloud computing, innovative mHealth solutions are expected to enable physicians to perform tests in near-patient settings and receive answers in just a few minutes. Faster speed to result is a major benefit. Add accuracy that’s comparable to clinical laboratory testing, and it’s easy to see why mHealth solutions will be desirable. But do they work?

Smartphones Are More Powerful than Supercomputers?

The capabilities of computers continue to increase annually. Without considering the clustered computers of big companies, such as IBM’s Watson, Google’s DeepMind, or Microsoft’s Oxford, many people walk around with computing power in their pocket unimaginable just a few decades ago.

For example, Expert’s Exchange reports that the iPhone 4—already 3 generations old at the time of writing—offers comparable processing power to the Cray-2 supercomputer from 1985!

The hand-held point-of-care diagnostic device above was created by OJ-Bio Ltd, a developer of portable pathology testing technologies based in the UK. It contains test assays, a multi-channel biochip, and diagnostic software. The biochip is supplied with blood, saliva, serum, or urine through a disposable cartridge. The software identifies the presence of disease or infections, such as Influenza A/B viruses, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), periodontal disease, and even HIV. A report is then transmitted to a portable computing device, such as a smartphone or table computer. (Photo copyright: OJ-Bio Ltd.)

The hand-held point-of-care diagnostic device above was created by OJ-Bio Ltd, a developer of portable pathology testing technologies based in the UK. It contains test assays, a multi-channel biochip, and diagnostic software. The biochip is supplied with blood, saliva, serum, or urine through a disposable cartridge. The software identifies the presence of disease or infections, such as Influenza A/B viruses, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), periodontal disease, and even HIV. A report is then transmitted to a portable computing device, such as a smartphone or table computer. (Photo copyright: OJ-Bio Ltd.)

It’s no surprise that researchers and healthcare technology groups see these devices as an opportunity to revolutionize healthcare worldwide. Dark Daily highlighted the rise of mHealth devices in our 2011 e-briefing, “Why Smartphones May Be the Best Business Opportunity in Healthcare.” At that time, researchers and health information technology (HIT) professionals predicted that mHealth would dominate the market within a few years.

mHealth Will Supplant Human Specialists

While far from dominating in 2017, mHealth enjoys steady growth in the number of new devices and services appearing each year, along with the acceptance of mHealth by the public, health organizations, and world governments.

In a January 2017 Financial Times article, Keith McNeil, chief clinical information officer at the National Health Service (NHS) said, “In five years’ time, smartphones—or whatever device we use to access information—will take the burden away from the limited number of human specialists we have. People will get really intelligent triage that’s personalized to them from their phones, or be empowered to look after their own chronic conditions, like diabetes, via home monitoring.”

Some solutions are even simple enough for home use. Speaking with Financial Times, Eric Topol, MD, Cardiologist at Scripps Health in La Jolla, Calif., said, “Right now we are at a phase where most routine medical tests are about to be smartphone-mediated—not just the cardiogram, but eardrum inspections, sleep apnea detection, hemoglobin testing, vital signs like blood pressure, oxygen concentration in the blood, these are all becoming quickly and inexpensively available for consumers via their phones.”

One example of this is the smartphone kits from Biomeme. In Dark Daily’s 2014 e-Briefing, “Pathologists Could Have DNA Sequencing Device That Connects to a Smartphone and Can Produce Immediate Results from Several Types of Medical Laboratory Samples,” we reported on the launch of these kits, mentioning a test drive in collaboration with Drexel University College of Medicine.

Financial Times reported that the Biomeme kit is now in use at Drexel Women’s Care Center in Philadelphia, Penn., analyzing the results of more than 900 sexually transmitted infection (STI) tests. Drexel found the test was not only easier to use than lab-based tests, but offered equal accuracy with traditional laboratory testing, according to the Financial Times article.

Maintaining Privacy/Security of Patient Data a Concern for Clinical Laboratories

Despite rapid growth in both technological capability and affordability, privacy remains the biggest issue facing the use of smartphones and tablets in healthcare. Much of the data generated by these new mobile diagnostic tools are highly personal. Keeping that data secure in professional settings is difficult. Already, the sheer quantity of data held in electronic health records (EHRs) has raised concerns.

When consumers begin storing sensitive healthcare data on mobile devices—particularly personal devices or across multiple cloud storage options—security concerns increase. And as precision medicine and mHealth solutions continue to mature, data will increase exponentially as well.

So, is mHealth a threat to medical laboratories and pathologists? Possibly. Once clinical laboratories and pathology groups adopt mHealth technologies within their organizations, they accept much of the responsibility for the security and privacy of their patients’ health data. Additionally, the ability for physicians to provide point-of-care testing through the use of mHealth technology will inevitably change the demand for diagnostic testing that is currently provided by medical laboratories.

Despite this, there are opportunities for medical laboratories to communicate test data, improve response times to critical health concerns, and improve the overall quality of healthcare.

—Jon Stone

Related Information:

Processing Power Compared: Visualizing a 1 Trillion-fold Increase in Computing Performance

Health Care and Cyber Security: Increasing Threats Require Increased Capabilities

How Smartphones are Transforming Healthcare

Point of Care: Greasing the Skids for Efficient Healthcare Delivery

Pathologists Could Have DNA Sequencing Device That Connects to a Smartphone and Can Produce Immediate Results from Several Types of Medical Laboratory Samples

Why Smartphones May Be the Best Business Opportunity in Healthcare