Phone camera captures a world of diagnostic smarts

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Phone camera captures a world of diagnostic smarts

Scientists find an app using the phone's camera does a better job than a traditional medical exam

Journalist

The camera on your smartphone is smarter than you might think and is changing the nature of medical assessments.
Scientists have just found that an application that uses the camera did a better job than a traditional examination at assessing patients’ blood flow in an artery in their wrists.
In the traditional examination, called the Allen test, the doctor asks the patient to elevate one hand at a time for 30 seconds with a clenched fist. The doctor then applies pressure over certain arteries to assess the blood flow.
In the study, which was carried out by the University of Ottawa and published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, a total of 438 participants were split into two groups.One group was assessed using the app, and the other with the traditional Allen test.
According to the researchers, “the smartphone app had a diagnostic accuracy of 94% compared with 84% using the traditional method”.
The finding highlights the potential of smartphone applications to help physicians make decisions at the bedside, said the university.
“Because of the widespread availability of smartphones, they are being used increasingly as point-of-care diagnostics in clinical settings with minimal or no cost,” said researcher Dr Benjamin Hibbert.
But, while this is good news for the layperson who might see smartphones as a silver-bullet solution for medically over-burdened countries like South Africa, it comes with a caveat.
“When smartphones and apps begin to be used clinically, it is important that they are evaluated in the same rigorous manner by which we assess all therapies and diagnostic tests,” said lead author Dr Pietro Di Santo.
Smart success
The study adds to an ever-growing body of research into how smartphones can revolutionise access to medical help.
This is particularly useful in Africa, where the provision of healthcare services seldom meets the demand of the population.Some of the success stories include:
• Matibabu, an app developed in Uganda to help in diagnosing malaria without patients having to give a blood sample;
• Vula,  a South African app initially used only for eye examinations but which now covers burns, HIV and cardiology; 
• Ubenwa, a Nigerian app that detects childbirth asphyxia (lack of oxygen to the brain before, during or just after birth) early on so help can be sought. It has achieved over 95% prediction in accuracy trials, and is under development for clinical approval.

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