How Smartphones Could Take Over in Routine Physical Exams

Mike O'Brien

Signs requesting that patients "do not use cell phones" can be found in doctor’s offices across the country, with some even asking that the devices be switched off.

So it is with some irony that mobile technology is transforming health care at an unbelievable rate.

As more and more physicians are starting to use cell phones for healthcare, the day that regular medical tools are replaced by smartphones may be closer than we think.

Related: Boston Medical Center to Use Mobile Support System for Patients

The routine physical exam, for instance, could be replaced by a smartphone exam in the near future.

An increasing number of apps and attachments are being developed that can do the work of the stethoscopes, otoscopes and ultrasounds – in real time and at less cost.

The traditional physical exam has its limits when it comes to detecting diseases. Research has shown chest exams carried in physicals failed to pick up half of all pneumonias.

In a recent Washington Post article, medical technology blogger Ravi Parikh cited another study which found that stethoscopes correctly identified only one-fifth of previously diagnosed heart conditions.

These are the kind of "holes" that can be filled by the use of smartphones.

One app currently in development is a smartphone case that doubles a heart monitor.

Patients can get readings of their heart rhythms simply by putting their fingertips on sensors found on the back of the case.

The traditional method, using a EKG machine, involves a technician attaching sensors to a patient’s body in a clinic.

Aside from the obvious advantages of miniaturization, the smartphone version of the EKG means patients can actually participate in their own exam.

The readings of the monitor can be transferred from an iPhone to the web, so a doctor can remotely and immediately look for specific heart abnormalities in real time — instead of the patient physically showing up at an ER or doctor’s office for evaluation.

The use of mobile technology in the healthcare system will be the focus of IDGA’s DoD/VA mHealth summit in November. For more details, go to