Over the last few decades, we have seen many PC- and Web-based applications adapted to work on mobile phones, and more recently, we have seen applications exclusively designed for smartphones.
At the 16th Annual Global Mobile Awards, held in Barcelona, the ”Best M-Health Innovation” award was given to a company doing just that -- Mobisante, which has built a specialized medical device on top of a smartphone.
Mobisante has developed software that allows a Windows Mobile smartphone to connect to an ultrasound probe via USB, turning it into a fully functional portable ultrasound system. It uses the computing power of the phone to process and render images and built-in cellular or WiFi radios to transmit data.
While the device doesn’t replace high-end ultrasound equipment found in most US hospital radiology departments, it is perfectly suitable for taking “a quick look” -- for example, to confirm a pregnancy or determine the position of a baby. Such devices could thus expand the range of primary care services currently performed by specialists. This could be especially important for the many patients in America treated in community health centers.
Mobisante believes that if this technology can achieve scale, a single ultrasonic exam can cost less than a $1/exam. An exam can be conducted by a non-expert, and since the system uses a smartphone, it is portable and can be brought to the patient, providing care where it is needed.
Recently, the US Food and Drug Administration granted Mobisante a 510(k) clearance for its smartphone-based ultrasound system, MobiUS. Mobisante plans to sell several versions of it, with probes at different frequencies for different medical applications. Depending on the components included, the price could range from $5,000 to $10,000 initially and drop by half within the next few years.
Mobisante’s device is not the only handheld ultrasound device in the marketplace. Several others have also received FDA clearance, including GE's Vscan and the Siemens Acuson P10. But Mobisante's device has an advantage because it uses the smartphone, allowing it to connect directly to a cellular network or WiFi. The user can send images with the push of a button.
In contrast, handheld ultrasound devices currently on the market can't email images directly -- a user has to transfer them to a PC first, either with a docking station, or by removing the device's memory card.
Use of the smartphone as a platform also makes Mobisante’s device more accessible. The vendor says that 70 percent of the world population does not have access to ultrasonic imaging technology, but 90 percent of the world population does have access to the cellular network.
Irrespective of its success, Mobisante is among the first to take steps toward creating add-on hardware for smartphones for various functions in the medical industry. Research is underway for applications that analyze blood cells for malaria, test water for parasites, and even monitor the health of HIV patients by counting T-cells in their blood.
The success of such future hardware extensions to smartphones in America will depend largely on how the FDA regulates these devices. In the next few years, we will witness to what extent mobile phones with simple generic communication hardware become FDA-regulated.
FDA policies will determine the pace of innovation on such devices. Nevertheless, it seems some medical instruments and practices are set for a change both in developed and emerging markets in the near future, thanks to the combination of smartphones and medical apps.
— Pranay Mittal has been an IT/business management consultant for over 10 years.