By Chelsea Yates
For researchers in the UW’s UbiComp Lab, a smartphone offers much more than access to email, Facebook and Pokémon Go: It has the power to detect disease and, ultimately, save lives.
The growing availability of smartphones with increasingly sophisticated sensors has opened new avenues for exploration and innovation — avenues that will lead to healthier communities in even the poorest regions of the globe. With partners across campus and worldwide, UbiComp researchers are developing and deploying mobile technologies that will transform health care as we know it.
Shwetak Patel, Washington Research Foundation Endowed Professor of Computer Science & Engineering and Electrical Engineering, leads the UbiComp Lab. The College of Engineering recently talked with him about this emerging body of work.
Learn more: UbiComp Lab
Five smartphone apps with the power to transform global health
UbiComp researchers are developing and testing several low-cost, easy-to-use, non-invasive mobile health apps, including:
BiliCam: An alternative for detecting newborn jaundice — which can lead to brain damage and death — using a smartphone’s camera. Instead of looking for “yellowness” in the skin, the camera and flash together measure the amount of bilirubin in the blood by examining wavelengths of light absorbed by the skin. In the U.S., this app will enable parents and general practitioners to screen before involving a specialist. In many parts of the world, midwives and traveling nurses more commonly deliver babies. Currently they have no screening tool for jaundice; this app will provide them with one.
HemaApp: A means of measuring hemoglobin in the blood using a smartphone's camera. Many health conditions — such as anemia, malnutrition and pulmonary illnesses — impact hemoglobin levels. This app is not only a disease screening tool but it can also help medical professionals assess the nutritional well-being of individuals and communities. Current monitoring requires blood samples or expensive equipment. By eliminating the need for blood draws, HemaApp alleviates concerns about sample contamination or infection.
SpiroSmart/SpiroCall: Hundreds of millions of people worldwide suffer from chronic respiratory diseases, and millions die each year. SpiroSmart measures lung function by having the patient blow into a phone’s microphone, replacing an expensive dedicated spirometer for diagnosing and managing asthma, cystic fibrosis and other pulmonary diseases. SpiroCall is a related project that is particularly useful in low-resource settings where smartphone access is limited. It turns any phone into a spirometer through a toll-free calling service.
CoughSense: Coughing is the number one symptom individuals report when experiencing an illness. Currently, to assess coughing, patients are asked to self-monitor or wear specialized equipment. CoughSense uses the phone’s microphone to monitor cough frequency for a single person or, when networked, to track trends across an entire population. In this way, it will be an important tool in monitoring the spread of diseases such as influenza or tuberculosis through pattern recognition in high-density areas.
BPSense: Measures blood pressure by Pulse Transit Time (PTT), the time taken by a pressure pulse to travel through the arterial tree. One method uses a phone's dual camera to measure a person’s pulse at his/her fingertip and ear simultaneously. A second method uses a phone’s microphone and camera to listen to the patient's heart beat and measure pulse at his/her fingertip. In addition to tracking, BPSense can also remind individuals to check their blood pressure at various times throughout the day.
Images courtesy of the UbiComp Lab, University of Washington.