Technology is shaking up healthcare – and not just with advances in medical devices and electronic medical records. Each of us is poised to become our own mobile lab simply by harnessing technology that’s already in our pockets.

While the health-minded have been using mini devices to monitor daily movement (e.g. Fitbit) or track their runs (Nike+) for a while now, the latest mobile offerings track the sorts of things you typically have to go to a doctor’s office to keep an eye on. Some of these new devices measure vital signs and even test your blood sugar, all thanks to the fancy circuitry available in your average smartphone!

What can my smartphone really tell me?

For most of us, a disease that requires constant monitoring pretty well necessitates specialized equipment or many trips to the doctor’s office. Now, medical devices are harnessing smartphones to provide basic, and not-so-basic, lab testing capabilities from the comfort of home. Recent breakthroughs allow patients to use their smartphones to:

More gadgets are in the works, including one to test your urine. Meanwhile doctors are beginning to use cheap, lightweight ultrasounds and CellScope is marketing a product that turns your phone into a microscope! Need to see if your kid stuck a pea in his ear and you don’t have an otoscope handy? No problem – grab your iPhone!

How do smartphones enable mobile healthcare?

This mobile medical revolution takes advantage of many benefits of smartphones; these devices are:

  1. Portable. Since many adults carry around smartphones anyway, harnessing these devices is a no-brainer for tests that require constant monitoring.
  2. Configurable. Many smartphones have enough processing power to perform basic monitoring tasks, and the same phone can run several apps that each perform a different test.
  3. Personal. Your test can be configured to you, and you can keep track of your history over time and run basic statistics on the data.
  4.  Synched with your doctor. Web connectivity lets you send your results and measurement history directly to your doctor, which keeps all your care providers on the same page (and potentially alerts your doc if the numbers seem out of whack).
  5.  Relatively inexpensive. While I’m not arguing that an $800 iPhone 5 is “cheap,” this cost pales in comparison to the cost of going to the doctor for constant, routine monitoring.

Good user experience is mission critical — lives are at stake!

As monitoring becomes routine for the untrained lay person, it is imperative that the technology is simple to use and interpret. Having intuitive user experiences is important for ensuring that data is obtained correctly and properly understood. A home monitor is worthless — and possibly harmful — if false positives send you to the doctor over and over, incurring needless worry and expense! And, in the opposite case, any problems that are detected must be clearly communicated to the user; these medical devices are actually cases where poor user experience design could potentially be life-threatening or life-saving. The FDA mandates and regulates human factors testing of mobile medical devices to ensure that designs are safe, effective, and efficient. However it’s up to us as designers and researchers to create wonderful, safe experiences for users and to ensure best practices in a rapidly evolving field.

To learn more about advances in mobile healthcare, check out an interesting new book on the subject – The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care (Dr. Eric Topol), and watch a recent “Rock Center” (NBC) report on the mobile revolution.

While we may not yet be at the level of a Star Trek tricorder to assess every possible condition at once, we’re working our way there. Are you using mobile medical devices? Share your good, or bad, experiences with us.