Smartphones are revolutionizing medicine as new apps proliferate. Then there’s the Facebook lesson for and against trusting that your data won’t fall into the wrong hands.

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The News:

An experimental smartphone app might be an effective alternative to a traditional method of assessing circulation in people who need surgery to restore normal blood flow to the heart, a small study suggests.

Before these heart procedures, surgeons must know whether an artery is healthy enough to snake a catheter through it to the heart to remove any blockages and restore blood flow. Traditionally, they use the so-called “Allen” test, which involves blocking circulation to the hand until it turns white, then easing pressure on one of two main arteries to see if the hand turns pink again, indicating a healthy artery.

For the study, researchers compared doctors’ assessment of hand color in the Allen test to an experimental circulation measurement app that uses a smartphone camera to monitor changes in color in the fingertips. With the app, doctors correctly diagnosed artery health 92% of the time, compared with 82% using the Allen test, researchers report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. (Ref: Reuters)

In addition, another experimental smartphone application could monitor changes in Parkinson’s disease symptoms throughout the day, sending data to doctors to help them treat patients, US researchers say.

“Like diabetes, Parkinson’s has variability and symptom fluctuations, which can also vary the treatment. We can’t measure these fluctuations at home, and you can only do so many measurements in the clinic,” said senior study author Suchi Saria of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The app developed by Saria and her colleagues asks patients to complete five tasks that assess speech, finger tapping, gait, balance and reaction time. From that, it generates a “mobile Parkinson’s Disease score,” which doctors can use to assess symptom severity and adjust medication, the team writes in JAMA Neurology.

“This new development is very exciting because this wasn’t feasible even a few years ago,” Saria said. “Patients seem eager, willing and curious to do this with their phones.”

The researchers developed their app, HopkinsPD, for Android smartphones to assess performance on the five tasks as often as patients want to use the app. The mobile score is based on the types of assessments usually done in doctors’ offices.

Steve’s Take:

I was just finishing reading the above account of the latest medical apps for smartphones when I switched on my TV and saw Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, in a dark suit and tie, accompanied by an entourage of aides after having held several meetings with leaders of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees. He also just posted testimony apologizing for Facebook’s role in false news, data privacy leaks and foreign interference in elections.

The onslaught of these actions preceded Mr. Zuckerberg’s facing lawmakers for the first time over Facebook’s role–and influence on society–set off by revelations that the data of up to 87 million Facebook users was improperly harvested by a British political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica.

Suddenly I thought, if my personal data can be swiped from Facebook, my medical data can almost certainly be hacked from my smartphone. Hmmm. I wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?

Steve's Take: Medical #Smartphone apps have the potential to transform #healthcare, but this makes #dataprivacy even more important Click To Tweet

Sure, I know the smartphone will radically change health care here in the states and elsewhere. But there are always industrious people–up to no good–who are willing to work harder and longer than the rest of us to steal our data and make money from using or selling it to others.

You see, data is worth everything to those who have figured out how to profit from it. Just ask Donald Trump, whose past personal data trail is being examined under a microscope. In all likelihood, someone, somewhere knows something our latest chief executive would pay a lot more than $130,000 to keep under wraps. Time will tell.

Getting back to medical apps and how radically smartphones have already changed our everyday lives, from banking to shopping to entertainment. Let’s face it, regardless of the looming security issues, people I speak talk to at my gym seem willing, even eager, for their medicalized smartphone to topple every aspect of their health care. Bring it on, they say.

In addition to the two new apps mentioned above, the range of data that can be captured and processed via a smartphone is stupefying. This includes input from sensors–such as blood pressure, glucose, oxygen concentration in the blood, heart rhythm, lung function and mood.

Virtually all the routine labs can be quickly assayed from a droplet of blood, says Eric J. Topol, MD, cardiologist and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, CA. He’s also the author of “The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine Is in Your Hands.” From a fingerstick, it is now feasible to get one’s results for various blood chemistries, electrolytes, liver, kidney, thyroid function tests and blood counts, Topol observes.

While all this may seem unnerving to many, Topol says there’s more help to interpret all this data than you could ever imagine.

“Computer software algorithms embedded in smartphone apps can analyze the medical data that you generate. Or more likely the data is remotely processed via cloud computing, that can also incorporate medical machine learning about your data. With this, your phone could warn you that your heart or lungs are beginning to malfunction well before you start to have symptoms.” Topol adds, “Your phone could warn you that your heart or lungs are beginning to malfunction well before you start to have symptoms.”

There’s even the potential link of your smartphone data to a supercomputer that instantly accesses nearly all the world’s medical literature.

This combination of a person, their medicalized smartphone and immense computing power is setting up a formidable force to change how health care can be delivered. For those who want to capitalize on this opportunity, it is here now and will be increasingly available wherever there is a mobile signal.

Bottom Line:

Dr. Topol tempers the mania about this new frontier, saying, “Much, if not all, of this potential progress depends on our ability to protect the privacy of everyone’s data. While the vast majority of people are willing to share their medical information to help others, that is with the assurance that it will be kept anonymized.”

Although there have been recent outcries that “privacy is dead” in the digital era, the data brokering of our Google searches, Amazon purchases and now our Facebook socializing is altogether different from your medical data being sold or hacked. If we are to realize this new medicine, decisive safeguards and action will be needed.

Today, via your smartphone and without the need for a doctor physically present, you can have a skin rash or lesion immediately diagnosed, your eyes refracted, your heart rhythm determined and find out whether your child has an ear infection. And instead of waiting weeks for an appointment, you can visit a doctor through your mobile device and not just chat but also exchange your data.

If digital therapy can meaningfully create for users many more good days than bad ones, then software can convincingly improve the daily quality of life for millions of people, not to mention drive billions of dollars in system-wide savings, says STAT News.

If it’s true that the average American taps, types, swipes, or otherwise engages with his or her smartphone an astonishing 2,617 times per day, we ought to be able to leverage our national obsession with pocket computers for dramatically better and cheaper health.

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