What do you get when you combine smartphones, cloud computing, and digital medicine? A new era of healthcare that is bringing powerful technological innovations rapidly to the world.
For example, take StethoCloud, a cloud-based service that turns a Windows smartphone into a digital stethoscope. Created by four students from the University of Melbourne, the goal of the team is to enable early diagnosis of an overlooked childhood killer: pneumonia. Using a specially designed microphone called a "stethomic" that plugs into the smartphone's audio jack and an app that guides users through the proper method for listening to a patient's breathing, early testing shows promising at accurately detecting the disease.
And it's expected to cost only $20.
Amazingly, the project only started at the beginning of this year with the first prototype built in February in just two weeks. With backgrounds in both computer science and medicine in developing nations, the team put together the app, cloud service using Windows Azure, and a polished presentation. By April, they were ready with their pitch and their efforts paid off: StethoCloud won the Australian Final of the 2012 Imagine Cup, a student technology competition hosted by Microsoft, in May, and the team advanced to the second round of the worldwide finals.
StethoCloud works like many apps: collect data from specific sources, process these data with algorithms, and interpret the results according to an established standard. In this case, the data is collected with the mic at specific locations on the patient's chest and back and uploaded to a server to filter out noise and analyze the data. Using standards defined by the World Health Organization for pneumonia, the data are interpreted and sent back to the phone with recommendations for treatment, if necessary.
Currently, the group is working with the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne to develop research protocols for field testing. Additionally, they've sent the stethomics to hospitals in Ghana, Malaysia, and Mozambique. By next year, the team hopes the device will be in use in areas that need it most.
It can't come soon enough. According to the World Health Organization, nearly one in five childhood deaths worldwide is caused by pneumonia, each year killing an estimated 1.4 million children under the age of 5, more than any other disease. As an ailment, pneumonia is complicated by the fact that it is caused by a host of culprits, like viruses, bacteria, and fungi, as well as substances like dust and gases. So diagnosis comes after the onset of symptoms, which often must become severe before the condition is recognized as life threatening. Hence, early detection has the potential to save many lives.
Speaking to GOOD, one of the team members, Dr. Andrew Lin, said, "We're deeply passionate about pneumonia, about saving children." He added, "This is what you want to do when you're little. You want to be that one that makes a difference, and that’s what we're setting out to do."
To learn more about the people behind StethoCloud, check out this interview:
In the big picture, StethoCloud is a prime example of the technological revolution coming to healthcare. Just consider what this project does for stethoscopes, in general. A good stethoscope used in clinics easily costs a few hundred dollars, and while digital stethoscopes exist, they are just as expensive. Additionally, they are standalone equipment, meaning that stethoscopes are used for auscultation only. On the other hand, the StethoCloud team estimates that their mic will be a tenth of that cost. Plus, it's a small add-on peripheral, just like CellScope's device for diagnosing ear infections, and helps the smartphone inch closer and closer to being a universal healthcare device.
There's no need to worry about smartphone adoption in developing countries either. As TechCrunch recently reported, it is estimated that in 5 years at least 40 percent of Africans alone will already own smartphones. Because of the app's algorithms that process breathing patterns, StethoCloud could be used by someone with even minimal medical training, as well. With more field testing and improvements in the design, the algorithms are sure to become more accurate and robust.
The lesson here is striking but simple: fast and furious technological advances in healthcare are coming from across the globe, and in a few short years, healthcare just won't be the same.