Paging Dr. Smartphone?

Paging Dr. Smartphone?

Cell phone technology has changed the economic landscape in many parts of the world. Now it might shape health care as well. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
Cell phone technology has changed the economic landscape in many parts of the world. Now it might shape health care as well. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps

Diagnosing diseases, running blood work and monitoring brain activity -- yup, there will be an app for that. And unlike Angry Birds, it might save lives.

One such project uses a polarized laser in a phone’s camera to find traces of malaria in the blood. Another stops the parasite before it even reaches the host: the program uses sound waves at resonant frequencies that cause nearby mosquitoes to vibrate uncontrollably and temporarily lose the ability to fly.

These projects prove that phones that simply send and receive calls are a thing of the past, and no one understands this better than Bill Gates. Under Gates’ program Grand Challenges in Global Health, applications that improve health are on the fast track from concept to reality. While these apps could be used anywhere, they would focus primarily on areas where medical tools or trained personnel are unavailable. Most of the programs are years away from completion, Fast Company Magazine reports, but the health benefits and cost savings they would bring could be worth the wait.

Another project funded by Grand Challenges would create an inexpensive near-infrared camera attachment that could monitor the brain activity of infants who have experienced a head injury. This application would then alert users of any dangerous brain swelling. Also in development is an app that would allow smartphones to scan medical documents into central databases.

But the Gates Foundation is not the only organization supporting smartphone developments for the global good. The X Prize Foundation has created a prize incentive for the development of a 2G phone-network-based education system. This would allow anyone with access to a cell phone to listen to educational lessons and lectures and interact through text messages.

These applications are still a ways off. Even if they are completed, they may never be an appropriate technology for the developing world. Physical location, parts availability, infrastructure, and even culture can stop a new technology from being adopted. Currently, smartphones are inaccessible to many parts of the world, particularly those targeted by the X Prize and Gates Foundation. But only a few years ago, the same could be said about mobile phones. Now, an estimated 4.6 billion subscriptions exist worldwide.

While it might be hard to imagine smartphones functioning in places where most housing is still made from mud, even these challenges are being addressed; Gates is funding a project that uses the metabolic outputs of microorganisms in soil to charge cell phones. Welcome to the future.

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