- What are sensors embedded in mobile phones?
- Types of monitored health issues
- Regulations for mobile phone sensors used for health monitoring
Telemedicine, the latest technology in the development of medical services, is powered by artificial intelligence, machine learning, video streaming, fast data transfer, 5G, and sensing technologies. These technologies are promising for in-hospital and remote patient monitoring. However, a body sensor app is also a powerful self-diagnostic tool that can be used at the first stage of a patient's health examination, saving the doctor time, and providing patients with accurate medical data. In this article, we reveal the potential of smartphone medical diagnostics with the help of sensors and special applications that can be used in smart hospitals.
What are sensors embedded in mobile phones?
The sensor is a technology capable of capturing and identifying changes in the environment. Modern smartphones have a lot of sensors already embedded, however, most of them are paired with a special application with extensive functionality.
What sensors does a smartphone have? Each smartphone model comes with its own set of sensors that can be classified into three categories:
- Motion sensors
- Environment sensors
- Position sensors
But what are health sensors? There is no separate category for sensors for health monitoring. The reason is that each of the sensors from the categories above can be used for health monitoring when paired with applications, smartphone medical devices, and/or wearable devices for daily usage.
For example, the latest Apple Watch calls an ambulance if a person suddenly falls and is motionless for about a minute. This is how motion sensors work. Position sensors work when a user applies a fingerprint to measure heart rate. Environment sensors can be used to manage health risks for people who are exposed to special conditions for a long time, such as high temperatures, radiation levels, or high humidity.
Types of monitored health issues
With the help of these three categories of sensors used in health monitoring, it is possible to monitor the following health indicators:
- Cardiovascular activity such as heart rate (HR) and HR variability (HRV)
- Eye health
- Respiratory and lung health
- Skin health
- Daily activity and sleep
- Ear health
- Cognitive function and mental health
Below we talk about how sensor and activity monitoring systems in healthcare are used to monitor the health issues above.
Cardiovascular health monitoring
Heart rate and blood pressure are key vital signs. What’s more, diseases of the heart are the most common. Coronary artery disease and heart attack rank as the first two in the top 10 causes of death in 2020 published by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Fortunately, most heart diseases are completely treatable if they are diagnosed early and the patient leads a healthy lifestyle. Mobile phone sensors in health applications can help with both tasks.
For example, heart rate apps allow for calculating a patient's heart rate by placing a users’ finger on a sensor on your smartphone. The KardiaMobile app measures the heart rate for 30 seconds, and this data can be sent to the doctor.
However, this data is not always absolutely accurate, since varying pressure applied to the sensor can affect the measurement result. In response to this shortcoming, contactless monitoring systems have been developed. For example, the FaceBeat app allows a user to calculate their heart rate by analyzing a video of their face.
In some cases, medical sensors for smartphones may not be enough. Heart disease is especially dangerous for people who are overweight, so in this case, it makes sense to use a smart weight scale connected to a smartphone to transfer and analyze data.
Ophthalmic health monitoring
Ophthalmic health control is especially important for people who are at risk for eye problems such as people with diabetes. Plus, the constant use of computers, smartphones and other devices that generate a blue glow leads to a significant deterioration in vision and other ophthalmological problems. The ability to diagnose potential problems is also important for older people.
The smartphone camera and built-in image recognition sensor are used to diagnose the health of the retina. Next, the fundus image of the user is matched with the preloaded images of a healthy eye and eyes affected by certain diseases to make a comparison-based conclusion.
Pulmonary health monitoring
Diseases of the respiratory system are dangerous primarily because they are of a viral nature, which means that they can be easily transmitted from one person to another. The recent coronavirus pandemic has clearly shown the danger of interaction of infected people with others which leads to an exponential increase in the number of cases.
In the case of viral respiratory diseases, the possibility of remote diagnosis using mobile medical apps is an additional guarantee of safety by not exposing others. For example, apps that detect cough algorithms using a smartphone's built-in microphone can help make a preliminary diagnosis.
Preventing lung disease is also important in the context of ambient air pollution. For example, Flappy Breath is an app that allows you to assess the strength of inhalation and exhalation, making a conclusion about the volume of the lungs and the presence of obstructions.
Besides, not so long ago, a smartphone microphone was used to implement an analog rendition of a spirometer on a mobile platform. A spirometer is an expensive medical device used to provide comprehensive data on lung health and to diagnose cancer. In an underdeveloped medical environment, such an online medical app can be an inexpensive but effective alternative.
Skin health monitoring
Skin diseases are difficult to diagnose since in many cases skin rashes caused by different diseases can be similar. Diagnosing skin diseases with a smartphone camera is challenging, as vibrations of the smartphone in the user's hand, low camera resolution, or too much or too little light can distort the results.
In response to this shortcoming, the developers of the DERMA solution for melanoma diagnostics have found a way to equip a smartphone camera with a high-precision microscope. This approach allows for obtaining high-quality images to compare them with standard images of affected skin areas and make a preliminary diagnosis.
Activity and sleep monitoring systems
The basic functionality for tracking activity is already built into most modern smartphones, but to get a complete picture it is necessary to use additional devices like an Apple Watch health monitoring solution.
What’s more, additional sensors built into the Google Fit heart rate monitor or iPhone heart rate monitor app can help users gain comprehensive knowledge of changes in their heart rate during certain activities, and based on this they can get personalized recommendations or precautions.
Likewise, these sensors can work to detect sleep patterns, which can be especially useful for patients with sleep disorders who do not want to undergo long-term observation and measurements of brain activity in a hospital setting.
Hearing impairment monitoring systems
The most promising way to use smartphone sensors is to create a hearing aid on a mobile platform. This will reduce the cost of hearing aids and make them more accessible to vulnerable groups such as elderly people.
With this innovation, the smartphone's microphone recognizes speech and modifies this signal to a frequency and volume that the user can hear, and then transmits the data via Bluetooth to the hearing receiver.
Mental health monitoring
Are smartphones good or bad for mental health? It depends on the way a patient uses his smartphone. Spending time on social networks, constantly comparing oneself with other users and addictive online games can lead to a negative impact on a person’s mental health. However, there are several useful applications that can help patients cope with anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, emotion identification problems, and eating disorders.
What’s more, the data obtained from sensors on smartphones and smart health devices can provide a huge amount of insights into a person's psychotype, identifying possible problems at an early stage, and developing personalized recommendations.
For example, location data from GPS can help identify behavioral patterns, analysis of voice tone during calls with a microphone can help determine stress levels, and information about the apps used most often can help diagnose possible depression.
However, privacy issues are one of the greatest concerns to users regarding the collection of data about their mental health.
Regulations for mobile phone sensors used for health monitoring
Security and privacy issues are of the greatest concern to users of medical sensors, associated mobile applications, and additional wearable devices. Serious concerns also stem from the fact that most developers do not involve medical professionals in the application design phase.
So far only a few medical applications have received FDA approval. These are Mobile MIM for Diagnostic Radiology and KardiaMobile that we mentioned earlier. Most of the standards and protocols that are created to ensure the security of data inside mobile applications, as well as data generated by wearable devices, are under development and approval both in America and Europe.
The use of sensors in medical practice and for self-diagnostics has enormous potential, however, only if medical data is reliably protected, and users are ready to share this information with developers. The reliability of the developer and experience in creating medical applications using smartphone sensors is an important consideration for the success of a future solution.
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