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The Smartphone Physical

What if the next time you step into your doctor’s office for an examination, she reaches into her white coat pocket and pulls out an iPhone instead of a stethoscope? That’s the idea behind The Smartphone Physical, a re-imagination of the physical exam using only smartphones and a few devices that connect to them. These include a weight scale, blood pressure cuff, pulse oximeter, ophthalmoscope, otoscope, spirometer, ECG, stethoscope, and ultrasound. Want to know more? I’ve answered some questions here for THCB. And have a few myself.

What are the pros and cons of using smartphones for clinical data collection?

Smartphone penetration in virtually every market has exceeded expectations, and healthcare is no exception. More than 80% of physicians in the US have smartphones, and of those three-quarters use them at work. Much of this is currently personal communication, but increasingly physicians are using smartphones as reference tools; between 30-40% report using their smartphones for clinical decision support. It seems like a logical next step to go beyond reference apps and to start using peripheral devices, such as cases that convert the smartphone into an ECG or otoscope as well as peripherals such as pulse oximeters and ultrasound probes, for easy and reliable data collection.

At TEDMED we found that using our smartphones and the clinical devices actually improved our ability to engage with the “patient,” because we were able to share and explain the physical exam findings directly at the point of care. We could take a quick snapshot of the carotid arteries and tympanic membrane and, for the first time ever, show the patient what theirs looked like and field any questions they may have. Ideally in the near future we’d be able to go one step further and upload this data to the patient record. That is one of the most powerful aspects of the Smartphone Physical because we will be able to establish baselines for individuals. For example, instead of the current model of a primary care ophthalmologic exam, where a physician will write “W.N.L” or “unremarkable” for a patient without a concerning optic disc finding, we will be able to take and store an actual image of what the patient’s optic disc looked like at an earlier time-point. This may be particularly useful for patients who present years later with concerning visual changes.

Furthermore, smartphone-based collection of clinically-relevant data will help patients become their own data collectors. This may abstract away the mundane and standardize the unreliable aspects of the physical exam, and allow for trending data that needs to be taken in context and not just at once-yearly visits (e.g. blood pressure, temperature, etc).

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