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Focus on disability: Reaching patients with smartphones

Not everyone has access to an eye exam like this. Image courtesy Mike Blyth, Wikimedia Commons.

Hannah Kuper, co-director of the International Centre for Evidence in Disability at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in the UK, explains how cheap smartphone adapters can be used to diagnose ear and eye conditions. This technology, she argues, can ensure patients in all areas get appropriate treatment.

About 4.5 billion people worldwide have a mobile phoneabout as many as have access to a toilet. No wonder these mobile devices are being put to many new uses, including collecting data in Ebola vaccine trials in West Africa later this year.

Mobile phones can change healthcare for disabled people in other ways too, beyond collecting data for research. In poor settings, many people with disabilities have conditions that can be treated, but are often not diagnosed. One major reason is that the clinicians needed are often based in the big cities, far from the people in need. Mobile technology can take the diagnosis to the patient.

One example is Peek Vision, an app and lens adapter that performs “professional eye exams from your phone”, as the advertising blurb runs. This includes taking an image of the retina with a smartphone, a process so simple that it requires no special training in these devices. The image can then be texted to a clinician who can make a remote diagnosis and recommend treatment (see video below for more on how it works). The device is due to be launched globally this year and will cost about US$100. It is targeted at health workers around the world, and costs a fraction of the price of existing devices to examine eyes and so fills an important gap.

CellScope — a similar smartphone adapter — can be used to take an image of the inside of the ear. The image can then be sent to a clinician to diagnose ear problems that can cause hearing loss, such as infections or impacted ear wax. A basic version of CellScope costs US$79, while a more-specialized version for doctors is US$299.

Learn more about the Peek Vision project here.

The great thing about both these products is that they are as good as the standard medical equipment, but much cheaper. This offers real potential for widespread use and preventing blindness and hearing loss.

These tools can go a long way toward working out which treatments people need. But by themselves they won't solve the challenge of linking the patient to the health service, and making sure they get appropriate services.

Here again, mobile phones may help. For instance, a LSHTM PhD student is developing a mobile phone app to manage disabilities after a stroke. Care For Stroke gives guidance on how patients can perform physiotherapy exercises, how carers can wash and move patients, and where to find further information on the condition. Early pilots in India show it is popular with patients and carers, and generally used every day.

These types of approaches could be rolled out to other settings and for other conditions, such as diagnosing Parkinson's disease or delivering mental health programs. Mobile phones can help make information on health more accessible for disabled people. They can also help in other spheres of public health — to send texts to encourage people to stop smoking or remind patients to take medication, for example. Phones can also be used by patients to book appointments and by doctors to enable follow-ups.

Mobile phone technology can revolutionize research, diagnosis and care for people with disabilities. The trick is to keep the technology cheap and appropriate to need.

Kuper has contributed to Peek Vision's ongoing development.

This article is republished from SciDev.net (CC BY 3.0 US).

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