In Depth: How our phones will become our doctors

In Depth: How our phones will become our doctors

The accelerometer. The gyroscope. The proximity sensor. The heart-rate monitor. There are already all kinds of sensors packed into our phones, and phone-connected wearables, collecting data about what we’re doing and where we are at any given time.

Scary or fantastic, this is just the beginning. Our phones are going to pack in more and more sensors – and this means they’ll be able to play an ever-greater role in our healthcare, as the benefits of the various technologies are fully realised.

By being able to sense the environment, monitor our vitals and use frameworks like Apple’s CareKit, your phone will provide your doctor with more – and more accurate – information than ever before.

Sounds great, right? But while our phones will become one of our greatest healthcare allies, there are corresponding fears that our data could be stolen, and our medical records compromised.

So exactly what’s in the pipeline? How important will our phones become to our health? And what action is being taken to secure all that personal data?

Sensing our environment

Right now there’s a lot of buzz around sensors and devices that track the quality of the air around us. These kinds of environmental sensors aren’t particularly new – they’ve been around in some form or another for years – but as they shrink down to smartphone size they’ll provide new kinds of information to medical professionals.

Devices like Canary £159 ($179, around AU$305) and Emerald Air are already using sensors to serve up information about the air quality in your home. But it’s not just one or two data points – the amount of information being collected is vast.

Mateusz Zelek, CEO and Co-Founder of Emerald Air, told TechRadar: “[Our] device lets you monitor temperature, humidity, pressure and air quality in your life environment. It detects over 600 harmful substances released from furniture, paints, carpeting, air conditioning and human metabolism, which irritate your eyes, skin or just make you sick.”

Emerald Air

Dr Stephen Daniels, creator of the Cair sensor ($130, around £88/AU$186), says there’s been a boom in devices built for this purpose because “the awareness of the effects of poor air quality on health and wellbeing is becoming even more understood”.

The Cair sensor is aimed specifically at those with asthma and allergies, measuring particulate matter (size and other attributes), volatile organic compounds, humidity levels and temperature.

But it’s when the data from the sensors is analysed, and combined with additional cloud-based data, that the system becomes even more useful.

Dr Daniels explains: “All the sensors are cloud-connected and the algorithms that create the alerts for each user are performed in the loud. These algorithms also grab external data such as weather, pollen counts, pollutant levels and so on, and use them in the analysis.”

If keeping ourselves healthier and better informed is our ultimate goal, then the obvious next step for these kinds of sensors is smartphone integration.

After all, wouldn’t it be more useful to find out what the air quality is like when you’re out and about during the day, at work and spending time outside, rather than just when you’re sitting in your house?

Dr Daniels told us he’s keen to develop new ways to integrate the Cair sensor further into smartphone architectures, although exactly how this will work isn’t yet clear.

In order to really help users the sensor would need to be either embedded into smartphones – perhaps on the underside of your handset, in the way cameras are now – or worn as a watch or other wearable that could send real-time updates directly to your phone.

The real benefit would be if these air quality sensors were able to work with GPS to measure air quality based on where you are, using data about upcoming hazards and problems, and crowdsourcing this data to provide others with more useful information and updates.

Cair Sensor

What our sweat can tell us

The next focus for smartphone health integration is digging deeper into the new kinds of information that can be collected. While the step-counting and heart-rate monitoring that many devices now perform are useful, our phones will increasingly be capable of collecting data that’s even more useful.

Earlier this year, engineers from the University of California, Berkeley, developed a new sensor that can measure the metabolites and electrolytes in sweat.

By combining these readings with skin temperature data, the sensor is able to alert the user to all kinds of issues, like fatigue, dehydration and dangerously high body temperatures.

“Human sweat contains physiologically rich information, thus making it an attractive body fluid for non-invasive wearable sensors,” says principal investigator Professor Ali Javey. “However, sweat is complex, and it is necessary to measure multiple targets to extract meaningful information about your state of health.”

The more data points that can be measured, the more meaningful the information that can be gathered.

Like sweat, our breath can also provide useful insights into our health. Devices containing sensors that analyse the composition of your breath are already available for athletes and health professionals, and could feasibly be coming to smartphones too.

For instance, Cosmed’s K5 can measure metabolic parameters including oxygen consumption, ventilation, heart rate and energy expenditure all from sensing your breath – and could easily be plugged into a phone in the future rather than a bulky backpack.

Cosmed - into your phone

Breezing ($350, around £238/AU$462) is a small handheld device that measures the composition of breath using indirect calorimetry – the measurement of oxygen consumption rate and carbon dioxide production rate – and is designed to give users a better understanding of their health and help them lose weight.

The data gained is used to gauge measurements such as Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) and Resting Energy Expenditure (REE), which when paired with the app can tell you all kinds of things about your current state of health – and its compact nature points to a place in your phone in the future.

All in the mind

In the future our phones won’t just be able to keep tabs on our physical health – they’ll be able to monitor our emotional wellbeing too.

There are generally two ways to collect emotional data: sentiment analysis software (working out what we really mean by what we say) and biometric data from wearables – and emotion-tracking wearables are already hitting the consumer market.

Feel is a wristband designed to give you a better understanding of your emotions and stress levels, using sensors that record biometric data such as blood volume pulse and skin temperature. This data is fed back to the app, which will then suggest actions you can take to elevate or alleviate certain moods.

However, current emotion-sensing tech is only really possible when sensors can be placed against your skin for an extended period of time, which means these sensors won’t be coming into your phone in the next year at least as brands work out how holding your handset more briefly can give the same insights.

In time, a wearable like Feel could send information about your emotions to your device, which could then be paired with data from other sensors in order to better understand what it is that makes you think and feel a certain way.

For example, an emotion-reading sensor might tell your phone that you’re stressed, enabling your handset to then use its other sensors to paint a more accurate picture of possible causes.

Perhaps you get stressed when air quality is low. Maybe your commute is the time when you appear to be the most sad. Or perhaps you’re happiest when in a certain location – although you’d probably be able to work that one out for yourself.

This information could in turn be used by your phone to suggest certain actions – perhaps telling you there are tickets left for a concert near to you if it senses you’re really low on the train home from work. It sounds like science fiction, but the pieces are coming together quickly.

Should we be worried?

It’s clear what the medical benefits of many of these future sensors are for the consumer. More sensors mean that apps, and increasingly machine-learning software, will be able to provide us with more accurate, useful and contextual information about ourselves and the world around us.

But the more information that’s collected, the more marketers, retailers, healthcare companies and others will want to get their hands on it.

Knowing where we are

As we explored in our feature on the sensors currently in our phones, the most malicious use of your data is often for marketing and advertising purposes.

Mike Feibus, principal analyst at FeibusTech, told us: “For the most part, those who watch us are in it for the money […]. The most common thing going on in our phones is for marketing purposes. They’d like to understand where we go, what we like. Then the information feeds targeted ad campaigns.”

What this means for us as consumers is that we need to exercise caution, and take the protection of our data seriously. Whether that means creating stronger passwords, or adding two-stage authentication, we need to make sure we’ve left no digital door unlocked.

But what if being sensible and aware isn’t enough? Could something as innocuous as not bothering to read allthe terms and conditions attached to a new sensor enable brands to access our medical information?

If, for example, your data was stolen and your health insurance company got hold of it, your policy could be cancelled. Or if an employee saw your private medical history, it might dissuade them from keeping you on.

Yes, these examples sound extreme, but a number of companies are already setting up corporate wellness programmes, and are requiring their employees to share wearable data. So while this sort of data gathering may seem rather Orwellian, it isn’t hard to believe it’ll become standard practice for companies keen to get a better understanding of who they’re employing.

And what about giving your data to small start-up companies because you want to be an early adopter of the next big health trend? The Internet of Things space is becoming increasingly competitive, so getting a product into your hands before someone else does might be more of a priority for companies than ensuring your data is safe.

What happens if that firm goes out of business? Or if you want to delete your information one day? As we demand more from our phones, we’ll also need to demand greater transparency about who has access to our personal data, and how it’s used.

Policy-makers, meanwhile, will be expected to create guidelines and laws regarding what is and isn’t ethical when it comes to our sensitive information.

All this is still a long way off, however. And providing that safeguards are in place and we’re aware of what can and can’t be done with our data, smartphone and wearable sensors will one day be capable of providing us with vast amounts of information that will help us to improve our physical and mental health.

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