Passivity: the really exciting thing about cell phones and health

There’s a lot of excitement about what smartphones can do for health. There are tons of apps for people who want to diagnose or monitor their condition, look up information, or connect with health care resources. The Boston Globe (My cellphone, myself) highlights Ginger.jo, a company that turns the phone into a medical monitor.

It’s true that there a lot of nifty things a smartphone can do. But the biggest gains will come from technologies that don’t require us to do anything special (like enter data, prick our fingers, or attach electrodes). And there the smartphone is already making a big difference. First, many people keep their phones with them and on just about all the time. That’s a huge hurdle for other remote monitoring equipment that the smartphone has overcome by its overall usefulness. Second, the phone already has passive data gathering capabilities, e.g., with the GPS chips that track location. And third, there is tremendous data generated by the usage of the phone in terms of mapping out who is contact with whom, when, and for how long, and how apps and the web are used.

Until only recently cameras on the phone were just a curiosity or a toy. Now they are used for all kinds of serious purposes like scanning documents and depositing checks. In the next few years I expect more clever sorts of sensors for pulse, ECG, oxygen levels and more to be built into phones, either as dedicated technologies or as extensions of existing general purpose functionality –the way accelerometers form the basis for phone pedometers.

It will be fun to be a part of it.

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