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mHealth

Enlisting mHealth in the Fight Against River Blindness

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CellScope Loa

When it comes to devising new ways to provide state-of-the art medical care to people living in remote areas of the world, smartphones truly are helping scientists get smarter. For example, an NIH-supported team working in Central Africa recently turned an iPhone into a low-cost video microscope capable of quickly testing to see if people infected with a parasitic worm called Loa loa can safely receive a drug intended to protect them from a different, potentially blinding parasitic disease.

As shown in the video above, the iPhone’s camera scans a drop of a person’s blood for the movement of L. loa worms. Customized software then processes the motion to count the worms (see the dark circles) in the blood sample and arrive at an estimate of the body’s total worm load. The higher the worm load, the greater the risk of developing serious side effects from a drug treatment for river blindness, also known as onchocerciasis.


Bionic Pancreas for Type 1 Diabetes

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Ed Damiano and son David

Caption: Boston University researcher Ed Damiano with his son David, who has type 1 diabetes, in 2002.
Credit: Toby Milgrome

From taking selfies to playing Candy Crush, smart phones are being put to a lot of entertaining uses. But today I’d like to share an exciting new use of mobile health (mHealth) technology that may help to save lives and reduce disability among people with type 1 diabetes—an advance inspired by one researcher’s desire to help his son.

By teaming a smart phone with a continuous glucose monitor and two pumps designed to deliver precise doses of hormones, a team from Boston has created a bionic pancreas that appears to control blood glucose levels in people with type 1 diabetes more effectively than current methods. That is a significant achievement because if blood glucose levels are either too high or too low, there can be serious health consequences.

In a healthy body, the pancreas masterfully regulates blood glucose levels by orchestrating the secretion of insulin and another hormone, called glucagon, which raises blood glucose. These hormones work together like an automatic thermostat, raising and lowering blood glucose when appropriate. However, in type 1 diabetes, the pancreas produces little or no insulin, leading to increased levels of glucose that gradually damage blood vessels, kidneys, and nerves, raising the risk of blindness and amputations.


Move over Holter? Heart Monitoring in the mHealth Era

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Man wearing a blue patch on his chest, another man wearing 5 patches and a monitor around his neck.

Caption: New patch (left) and traditional Holter (right) for monitoring heart rhythms
Credit: iRhythm Technologies (left); Misscurry,Wikimedia Commons (right)

There are thousands of “wellness” apps for smart phones and other mobile devices that will help you count calories, calculate your BMI, monitor your meds, boost your fitness routine, or quit smoking. These are now commonly referred to as “mHealth,” where the “m” stands for mobile technology. While these gadgets may encourage a healthier lifestyle, few of them have been tested rigorously for improved health outcomes over time, and they won’t necessarily keep you out of the ER.

Some of the most dramatic leaps in mHealth will arise when we have small, inexpensive wireless devices with sensors that can monitor your physiology—heart rate, blood pressure, blood sodium and glucose levels, breathing patterns, brain waves, and so on—and then transmit those data to your physician, who can then take actions that may spare you a trip to the hospital or even save your life.


Mobile Health: Figuring Out What Works

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This week, I was excited to join some of the world’s top experts on technology and health at the 2012 mHealth Summit. It’s a booming field, with a recent Pew survey finding 11% of cell phone users and 19% of smart phone users now have at least one health app on their mobile devices.

Among the hot topics at this year’s Summit was the need for rigorous research to determine which of these apps actually serve to improve health—and which don’t! To learn more, check out this video featuring NIH-supported researcher Charlene Quinn.

Dr. Quinn’s work focuses on mHealth approaches aimed at managing diabetes, but her message is relevant to all of us who’d like to use our smart phones, iPads, and other mobile devices to improve our health.


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