The Pocket Doctor: An Open Source Opportunity?

by Ostatic Staff - Jun. 17, 2009

In a post back in March, I made the point that mobile phones and other mobile devices will increasingly function as medical monitoring devices, which could be a big opportunity for open source application development. The concept of the phone as doctor may still be questionable for some people, since there aren't many applications to point to (yet), but open source developers are often uniquely good at creating something where there is nothing. Here are some thoughts on how meaningful this kind of application development could really be, and who is working on the idea.

At the demonstration of the iPhone 3.0 operating system earlier this year, Apple demonstrated two new applications for the iPhone that monitor the glucose levels of the owners and monitor blood pressure. The idea is that iPhone owners who have diabetes or high blood pressure could have data on their physical status collected, and even automatically sent at regular intervals to a doctor. Think of the idea as a sort of onboard doctor.

There are already applications of this type arriving for the iPhone, but the early ones have mostly limited functionality, and don't do the actual monitoring of physical systems. There is, however, an interesting effort going on at UCLA to enable mobile phones to run medical tests. UCLA announced its advances in this area late last year.

UCLA researchers have developed a lens-free technique called LUCAS, or Lensless Ultra-wide-field Cell monitoring Array, for doing medical imaging with a cell phone. Phones with LUCAS technology use a short wavelength blue light to capture medical images. Then, the captured image is compared to a library of images to make a diagnosis. Initially, UCLA researchers see this as leading to new practices for wireless, remote medical diagnostics for diseases such as HIV and malaria in the third world.

We've written about open source applications aimed at humanitarian and global medical aid before. Recently, the Lemelson-M.I.T. program awarded $100,000 to Dr. Joel Selanikio for his development and deployment of EpiSurveyor, an open source platform for gathering and sharing medical data using cell phones. It's in wide use in Africa, Indonesia, and elsewhere.

It would be good to see open source developers increase the scope of these efforts, and make applications that are useful for everyone. Perhaps that will happen as more Android-based handsets arrive, and it would be good to see, say, Google subsidize some of this type of deveopment with its Summer of Code program. Our phones are always with us these days, and I have no doubut that they will soon host potentially life-saving applications.