Smartphone, MD – A Doctor At the Tip Of Your Fingers

Maybe not this mean...

This ist part I in a series of posts about how technology interacts with the modern patient and physician. 

I have always considered myself as a technology junkie and I thank my father for that. He always had the newest, fastest and amazing computer (back in the day it was a Gateway 486 – moo!). So when it was my time to start med school, my father gave me the most awesome of gifts saying: “I know how difficult med school can be; this will help you organize your time,” and handed me his old Palm m500. I felt like Luke Skywalker when Obi-Wan gave him the lightsaber for the first time. Little did he know that organizing my time was the least of tasks I would achieve with this new amazing piece of technology I  had just received.

Palm Vader
Palm Vader

During my anatomy course, a professor showed interest in my device, so he introduced me to my first medical app: Epocrates. It really ran on my black and white m500! I instantly thought “this could be big”. After my m500, I upgraded to the Palm Tungsten, then the Treo phone and now, after a succession of Blackberries I have an iPhone 4s.

I remember downloading the 5-Minute Clinical Consult app from Skyscape on my Treo, and it had a very interesting feature where you could check the signs and symptoms of a particular patient and then it would come up with a list of diagnoses that matched with that group of symptoms, arranging it by those diseases that matched the most number of symptoms first. I was determined to test it, and as a matter of fate, I was watching an episode of House, MD and decided to mark down all the symptoms that our favorite TV doctor wrote on his whiteboard. At first, I thought that the result was very off target, but we all know how House never disappoint us and comes up with the most bizarre diagnosis after trying some wacky tests; to my surprise it was the exact diagnosis that my Treo came up in the first place (way to go Treo, MD!).

Maybe not this mean...

I have always thought of an idea where patients could download an app that worked like this symptoms checklist and after coming up with a list of possible diagnoses, it would direct them to the right source of information. I believed that this could reduce the huge misinformation that the internet provides. It is not uncommon to find patients coming into your practice auto-diagnosed with “the most horrible of cancers” and asking you to do something because they are “dying.” The amount of information in the internet is filling the heads of patients with ideas that are not always true or pertinent. This type of apps will also empower patients to take actions towards their own health by guiding them towards the right direction. I have come across a couple of apps on my iPhone that include this symptoms checklists. The most promising is the one found on the WebMD iPhone app. It includes a figure of a human body and one can touch the specific body part that has the problem, it then sorts all possible symptoms that affect that particular area and the user can choose one and add it to his complaints list. After adding all the symptoms, the app comes up with a list of possible diagnoses. I am not sure if this final diagnosis list is ordered by most common diagnosis for a particular age, gender, place, lifestyle, etc. or if it is arranged by the ones that matched the most symptoms. It would be interesting to develop algorithms that include all this variables and assign a weight to each one (e.g. it is more common for a soccer player to have a torn ACL than a swimmer). The technology is there, we just need to know how to apply it.

There is a very interesting take on algorithms for healthcare in a recent article on TechChrunch. The author argues about pros and cons and also gives his particular view on how the near future would be in healthcare when these algorithms are introduced. I believe this is an inevitable process, the question is how are you going to react? Are you going to reject it and fight against it? Good luck… Instead of just accepting it, I’d rather be one of the people making the changes and pushing healthcare forward with innovation.

The ball is on your side of the court – What do you think is the best use of current technology in the benefit of patients?


  1. Excellent, both for helping me stroll down memory lane (I could have written exactly the same words for the first few paragraphs of your piece-just never went over to Blackberry!) and for helping us all think about where this is going next. I have already had the experience of a lady whipping out her smart phone just seconds after I made a decision about a medication to prescribe, tap the screen a few times, and then announce, “I think you probably made a good choice.” 
    Well, thank you very much and I’m glad we agree!
    By the way, I loved my m500. Even with my iPad and iPhone 4s, I still miss that little machine…

  2. Well I would like to start by informing you, I’m not a doctor but I am an RN. I also have not had the opportunity to go thru so many devices either and am just really getting into web based apps and not on a iPhone4 or any other version of iPhone. All that said I would love for technology to be able to allow patients to aid in their healthcare and not give them more to worry about. I also as a nurse would love it so when people come to me with their symptoms saying, ”your a nurse”, like that means I know it all, and I can better direct them in their healthcare decisions, instead of saying go see your doctor. With the rising cost of healthcare and the honest fact that most people can’t afford it, this would aid in less trips to the ER and honest visits to a doctor. Keep pushing for the possibilities I know there is a way to integrate healthcare to the mainstream without eliminating the MD’s. Good luck hope to see a innovative, accutate, trustworthy app available to the general public.

  3. That is exactly one of the most important assets of new technologies in healthcare: empowering patients. Helping them take well-informed and consequently better decisions and not leaving that only in the hands of a doctor.


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