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 How Can Smartphones Improve Our Health?

Written: October 2022

In July 2015, I published a peer-reviewed journal article titled “How mHealth will spur consumer-led healthcare”. The following paragraph is the abstract of the article. If you are interested in the full article, you can find it here.

Abstract – 2015

Consumer attitudes about their healthcare are beginning to shift. They are taking more responsibility for their health and seeking to collaborate with their doctors. In some cases, consumers will engage in self-diagnosis. Mobile health apps and devices, in combination with cloud computing, will play a major role to empower consumers. Consumer expectations for healthcare are rising by the day. mHealth has provided empowerment to patients through the power of the PSC, which I describe as personal supercomputers. The number of devices and apps are exploding onto the healthcare scene. Although some providers are not comfortable with consumer technology for self-diagnosis, the new technologies will lead to a new model for collaboration between patient and physician.

Reflections – 2022

It has turned out to be true mobile health apps and devices, in combination with cloud computing and AI, are empowering consumers. Mobile apps are helping people manage their own health and wellness, promote healthy living, and gain access to useful information when and where they need it. The mHealth apps and devices are being adopted almost as quickly as they can be developed. Users include health care providers and consumers.

The FDA, “encourages the development of mobile medical apps (MMAs) that improve health care and provide consumers and health care professionals with valuable health information.” The FDA also has a public health responsibility to oversee the safety and effectiveness of medical apps and devices. Since my mHealth article in 2015, the FDA has approved several hundred apps and devices. The challenge facing the FDA is sorting out the plethora of apps and devices, and prioritizing and reviewing those which are clearly related to medical diagnosis and care. If you include fitness apps and devices, there are more than 40,000 apps out there.

An interesting new mHealth app has been developed by a team of researchers at the University at Buffalo. They have used Bluetooth earbuds and a deep learning AI system to diagnose some common ear conditions including earwax blockage, ruptured eardrums, and a common ear infection known as otitis media. The researchers are calling the combination of some simple non-invasive tests and a powerful app the EarHealth System.  

The EarHealth System uses a set of standard Bluetooth earbuds augmented with inward-facing microphones. The app sends an audio chirping signal into the ear. The microphones record how the signal reverberates through the ear canals, and the app software uses the signals to map out the ear structure and create a profile of the user’s unique inner ear shapes.

The concept behind the EarHealth System is to take an initial mapping of the ears to establish a baseline, and then take periodic tests to look for changes. The researchers conducted a trial with 92 volunteers. The system was able to diagnose the three common ailments with an 82.6% accuracy. In many cases the system was able to identify the ailments long before they had developed into serious problems.

Zhanpeng Jin, PhD, lead author on an EarHealth study published by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) said, “With EarHealth, we have developed what we believe is the first-ever earbud-based system that monitors ear health conditions in an effective, affordable and user-friendly way. Because it has the potential to detect these conditions very early, it could greatly improve health outcomes for many people.”

The researchers say they’re working to improve the accuracy of the system, by evaluating how ear hair, historical eardrum inflammation, and other factors might affect the test results. The technology sounds good to me, no pun intended. I am sure a submission to the FDA for approval is in the researchers’ plan. If the system is proven to be accurate, effective, affordable, and user-friendly, it could achieve widespread adoption as an mHealth tool for regular, super-quick ear checkups.