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Doctors at a clinic in Bangladesh observe the use of the SpiroSmart app to measure a patient’s lung function. (UW Photo)

BOSTON – University of Washington computer scientist Shwetak Patel’s work with sensors and smart devices has already spawned a wide range of ventures, but his latest experiments hold the promise of revolutionizing health screening worldwide.

Patel and his colleagues are using smartphones, and even not-so-smartphones, as monitoring devices for health metrics ranging from pulmonary function to hemoglobin counts.

Shwetak Patel
Shwetak Patel. (UW Photo)

The phone apps – including SpiroSmart and SpiroCall, HemoApp and OsteoApp – are currently going through the Food and Drug Administration’s clearance process for clinical testing. But once they pass muster, they’re likely to become the focus for Senosis Health, a venture co-founded by Patel that’s currently in semi-stealth mode.

Senosis draws upon startup expertise from CEO T.A. McCann (co-founder of Rival IQ and Gist) and COO Mike Clarke (former associate director in UW’s technology transfer office). Patel’s projects are also getting a big assist from UW, through his own UbiComp Lab as well as the university’s tech transfer operation.

It’s a promising frontier for the 35-year-old Patel, who won a MacArthur genius grant in 2011 and has sparked innovations ranging from energy meters to air quality sensors. He previewed the frontier of health monitoring at a presentation today in Boston during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Patel’s vision is to provide new lines of screening tools that serve as a first line of defense to counter conditions ranging from asthma to anemia and jaundice. If a person’s smartphone app picks up a problem, that could serve as an alert to go for further screening, and professional care.

“If you think about the capabilities on a mobile device, if you look at the camera, the flash, the microphone, those are all getting better and better,” Patel said. “In fact, capabilities on those phones are as great as some of the specialized devices. … Those sensors that are already on the mobile phone can be repurposed in interesting new ways, where you can actually use those for diagnosing certain kinds of diseases.”

For example, it’s possible to measure the flow of a person’s breathing, by holding the phone at arm’s length and blowing on it as hard as possible. “It’s just using the microphone as a flowmeter,” Patel explained. With proper calibration, the smartphone could provide data good enough for a quick-and-dirty diagnosis of lung problems like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

The approach already has been put through trials in India and Bangladesh, with encouraging results.

SpiroCall app
The SpiroCall app is designed for use with the relatively simple phones that are more common in the developing world. (UW Photo)
Elliot Saba, an electrical engineering doctoral student in UW’s UbiComp Lab, demonstrates the use of SpiroCall. (UW Photo / Dennis Wise)

Other apps, known as HemoApp and BiliCam, can use a smartphone’s flash and camera to illuminate the skin and provide readings for hemoglobin levels or an infant’s bilirubin count. Such apps could provide alerts for the warning signs of anemia or newborn jaundice.

Yet another application, called OsteoApp, takes advantage of the accelerometers on a hand-held smartphone to measure bone strength, based on the vibrations that pass through the user’s arm when the elbow is tapped.

Such apps could make it easier for clinicians to monitor their patients, and for medical researchers to collect a treasure trove of data.

“There are a lot of interesting questions here around regulatory issues. … There are challenges there, but I think there are opportunities there as well,” Patel said. “It changes the patient-provider relationship. The way you actually think about how this is going to operate moving forward is different, too, because now the patient is empowered to be able to collect this data.”

Quality control will be key: Gregory Hager, a computer scientist at Johns Hopkins University, noted that more than 165,000 smartphone apps have been created for health care, and those apps have been downloaded more than a billion times. But “very few of them have an evidence base,” he said.

If they meet with approval from the FDA, and from the medical marketplace, scientifically grounded smartphone apps just might change the health-care landscape. And that, Patel said, “could lead to some scientific discoveries that weren’t possible in the past.”

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