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January 11, 2015

Introducing Dr. Smartphone

Digital applications are poised to make the future of healthcare more virtual

Just as smartphones have revolutionized how we communicate, take pictures, shop online, and manage our bank accounts, the future of mobile technology promises radical developments in the practice of medicine and self-care. 

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Eric J. Topol, a California-based cardiologist and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, offers an in-depth look at how innovations in diagnostic technology will eventually transfer significant healthcare capabilities from doctors to patients. 

With innovative digital technologies, cloud computing and machine learning, the medicalized smartphone is going to upend every aspect of health care. And the end result will be that you, the patient, are about to take center stage for the first time.

Dr. Topol points to his own experience of a patient sending him an electrocardiogram, processed using an FDA-approved ECG app. Such apps, capable of immediately analyzing, graphing, and sharing information with physicians, enable speedier treatment decisions based on data that has already been interpreted. 

Similarly, the rise of wearable sensors that communicate with mobile applications might help normalize the transmission of information between doctors and their patients, giving purpose and meaning to the troves of data they produce. Smartphone attachments will enable patients to perform a variety of at-home lab tests that can evaluate bodily health and functioning through the analysis of samples. In time,  practically all of the most common physical ailments, ranging in severity from possible ear infections and broken bones to the detection of cancer and infections in the blood, will have advanced technologies designed to support patients in monitoring health conditions and concerns.   

With all these new tools, it is no surprise that we’re talking about the possibility of “doctorless” medicine. Let’s not get too carried away. You’ll still be seeing doctors—but you’ll have a lot more control.

Broad adoption of these technologies, from the establishment of access to financial viability, certainly contains potential conflicts of interest and security risks, as healthcare providers and patients alike will need to adjust their expectations and habits. Dr. Topol points to a 10-year horizon for these technologies to both improve in reliability and gain ground as tools for the successful management of a relationship that has historically privileged doctors. As that balance reaches a new share of responsibility, doctors will likely embrace the active participation of their patients and, ideally, some of the inefficiencies in the current delivery of healthcare can be cut down. 

As more medical data is generated by patients and processed by computers, much of medicine’s diagnostic and monitoring aspects will shift away from physicians like me. The “doctorless” patient will remain in charge, turning to doctors chiefly for treatment, guidance, wisdom, experience, empathy and the human touch. These doctors won’t write orders; they’ll offer advice.

While several major questions pose challenges to integrating these technologies in a more virtual model of medicine, the advantages are obvious. With the growing identification of preventive care as an essential facet of collective and individual health, doctors and patients both stand to benefit from welcoming such technologies into our lives.

Read the full story here.