Researchers don't wait for iPhone 4S to make healthcare customizations

An iPhone microscope. It consists of a 1-millimeter-diameter ball lens embedded in a rubber sheet and taped over the smartphone’s camera. Credit: Z. J. Smith, K. Chu, A. R. Espenson, M. Rahimzadeh, A. Gryshuk, M. Molinaro, D. M. Dwyre, S. Lane, D. Matthews, S. Wachsmann-Hogiu.

The iPhone 4S will be available on October 14, and one expert says Apple's new release "certainly boosts its suitability for healthcare applications." But one team of UC Davis researchers didn't need an upgrade to transform their iPhones into medical-quality imaging and chemical detection devices.

Sheridan Nye (pictured at right), a senior analyst in the Enterprise Verticals practice of London-based Informa Telecoms & Media, told Healthcare IT News how several aspects of the 4S may make it a more valuable tool for healthcare professionals:

[See also: iPhone 'ups the game' on health info]

  • Exceptionally high quality optics, dual-core processing and HSPA+ interface at 14.4Mbps make medical imaging feasible for the first time on a smart phone. As sophisticated apps become available, the smartphone could become a viable diagnostics tool.
  • The Siri built-in voice assistant will be useful for patients with limited mobility, for personalized medication and appointment reminders, and for professionals needing a hands-free dictation device, among other uses.
  • Bluetooth 4.0 is now standard on new Apple releases. Optimized for low-data-rate, low-power applications, this latest evolution is ideal for connecting battery powered medical devices and sensors. 
  • The combination of GSM/UMTS and CDMA EV-DO modes allows patients to take their medical applications and devices with them when they travel (roaming fees notwithstanding).

Although these new features could make the iPhone more practical to healthcare professionals, a team of researchers from the University of California, Davis, didn’t wait for Apple to customize their iPhones. Instead they used a 1-millimeter-diameter ball lens that costs $30-$40 to turn them into medical-quality imaging and chemical detection devices.

The team will present their findings on Oct. 19 at the Optical Society's (OSA) Annual Meeting, Frontiers in Optics (FiO) 2011, taking place in San Jose, Calif.

[See also: iPhone can diagnose stroke quickly, accurately]

Researchers say the enhanced iPhones could help doctors and nurses diagnose blood diseases in developing nations where many hospitals and rural clinics have limited or no access to laboratory equipment. In addition to bringing new sensing capabilities where they are needed most, the modified phones are also able transmit the real-time data to colleagues around the globe for further analysis and diagnosis. 

"Field workers could put a blood sample on a slide, take a picture, and send it to specialists to analyze," says Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu, a physicist with UC Davis' Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and the Center for Biophotonics, Science and Technology, and lead author of the research to be presented at FiO.

The group is not the first to build a smartphone microscope. "But we thought we could make something simpler and less expensive," he says.

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