Beyond Hipsters with Chronic Diseases: How Smartphones Can Change Health Care for Real Patients


Chances are you have a computer in your pocket that’s more powerful than the beige PC or clunky black laptop you lugged off to college. Maybe you’re even reading this on one of those powerful pocket computers (Science Life looks fantastic on a smartphone, by the way). Smartphones, tablets and other mobile computing gadgets are kind of a big deal, you may have heard, and they’re making an impact in health care just like every other industry. Patients use them to research medical conditions and track their diet and exercise routines; physicians use them to communicate with colleagues and access patient records and reference materials.

But is this really transforming health care, or just making it slightly more efficient? Being able to review a patient’s electronic medical record on an iPad may be convenient for a doctor making the rounds, but it’s not revolutionary. Last week at the Biological Sciences Learning Center, University of Chicago Medicine physicians and entrepreneurs gathered to talk about these issues in a panel discussion on the future of mobile health care.

The panel was held in conjunction with the UChicago App Challenge, an annual competition to solicit the best ideas for mobile apps from University of Chicago students, faculty and staff—and actually build a finished product. The contest, sponsored by UChicago IT Services, the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship, and UChicagoTech, is now in its third year. Many past contestants in the challenge have developed health-related apps, including all three of last year’s finalists.

Scott Stern, MD, Assistant Dean for Technology and Innovation in Medical Education at the Pritzker School of Medicine, moderated the panel, and started by talking about how the sheer amount of knowledge doctors are expected to learn makes mobile tools necessary. He should know about this challenge: He helped co-found Agile Diagnosis, a UChicago-based startup that produces a decision-support app to help doctors diagnose patients.

“This is a no brainer in terms of need,” Stern said. “The amount of information is mind boggling and it’s impossible to keep it in your head.”

Stern asked the panelists what they thought of the current mobile health care market. Steve Gould, a former surgeon who now advises companies and universities on how to develop biotech innovations, likened it to the Wild West, a wide open space where everybody wants a piece of the action but very few rules apply.

David Beiser, MD, Assistant Professor in the Section of Emergency Medicine at the University of Chicago (whose HealthSpotr app for streamlining ER discharges won the App Challenge last year), said so far he hadn’t seen many apps that were designed for real patients. Most apps, he said, looked like they were built for “hipsters with chronic diseases,” or the young developers who build apps without bothering to ask real patients what they need. Beiser said developers need to focus on how actual patients interact with technology instead of building what he called “vitamins” that only superficially improve health.

Instead of these vitamins, Beiser and Bob Zieserl, who manages a venture capital fund, talked about more exciting possibilities of biomedical sensors that can collect data from patients or field laboratory equipment and transmit it to a smartphone, taking advantage of its computational power and connectivity. For instance, an app that coordinates communication between a continuous glucose monitor and insulin pump would essentially create an artificial pancreas for diabetics, one that can also transmit real-time blood sugar levels and insulin usage to an endocrinologist.

But all of the panelists agreed that the seemingly endless possibilities of what mobile technology can do to extend medical devices or enhance patient care create problems. First of all, how do doctors sift through the mountains of data that could be generated by handheld devices constantly monitoring patients’ vital signs and activities? And how do patients make sense of the flood of information their doctors could send back to them, especially if they’re not a hipster who is used to navigating a smartphone?

Brian Coe, co-founder of SlipChip, which is developing a credit-card-sized tool for conducting molecular diagnostics and DNA testing, pointed out this gap between possibility and usefulness, one that will define the next few years of mobile health development.

“Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do it,” he said.

UPDATE – UChicago App Challenge posted a full video of the panel, so you don’t have to take our word for it:

About Matt Wood (531 Articles)
Matt Wood is a senior science writer and manager of communications at the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Division.
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