Geekend: Smartphone Blood Tests Could Save Your Life

Blood tests with your smartphone may change the way we treat AIDS, Diabetes, infectious diseases, and even transform the way we interact with our doctors.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

February 6, 2015

7 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: <a href="" target="new">Samiksha Nayak for Columbia Engineering</a>)</p>

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Have you ever gone to the doctor for a simple blood test and waited days for the results? It was annoying, right? Have you ever had a potentially fatal disease that could be diagnosed by a blood test, and waited days for those results? Now we're talking life or death. 

That's why there's so much promise in a new wave of blood-testing attachments for smartphones. Yes, your smartphone. We'll soon be able to monitor blood sugar, check for warning signs of stroke, track basic metabolism, and even detect HIV and syphilis in a matter of minutes, using attachments on our phone that are not much bigger than a card reader. This is going to spur far-reaching changes in the way healthcare is done in this country and around the world.

The most exciting news in this field came out Thursday from Columbia University, which announced that it has created a smartphone dongle that, in 15 minutes, can provide blood test results screening for HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or syphilis. According to Columbia University, it requires only 30 minutes of training for a person to learn how to use the tool. The best part is that, while the traditional HIV test costs more than $18,000, this machine costs $34.

In 2011, there were an estimated 34 million people with HIV/AIDS worldwide, including 3.3 million children. Each year, 1.7 million people die from AIDS. Early detection is crucial to getting people on the right cocktail of inhibitors before HIV turns into AIDS.

This is especially a big deal in sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly two thirds of the cases of HIV are found, but there is not an advanced infrastructure to test for or treat AIDS. The device was tested in Rwanda, so we know it is rugged enough to handle the travel and heavy use of real field work.

The reduced cost of testing, from tens of thousands of dollars to pocket money, is enough to make this a game changer. But given how easy it will be to bring the test to people who need it in at-risk communities, this may be just what the doctor ordered.

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HIV testing isn't the only innovation here. Diabetes, a disease which costs $178 billion to treat in the US alone, is another case where profound changes could occur from this technology. An Israeli company, Labstyle Innovations Corp., is among those testing blood glucose meters that attach directly to your smartphone. Portable glucose readers are already ubiquitous, but tracking test results requires organization and detail on the part of the patient, or perhaps the use of a secondary app.

By attaching the meter to the smartphone, tests can be stored automatically in the app. The app can help recommend action for the patient if blood sugar is too high or low, and the app can be used to remind the patient to test. Regular and accurate testing of diabetes patients prevents complications, reduces hospitalization, and improves quality of life for diabetes patients while reducing healthcare costs.

Multiple competing universities and companies, including the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Rhode Island, are also working on tests for basic markers of cardiovascular disease and signs of stroke. Eventually, we assume tests could lead to basic blood work-ups of all kinds.

Smartphone blood tests and the future of healthcare

This begs some questions about the future of healthcare. Will doctors start drawing blood in the office and give us results right there in real-time? Will we start drawing blood at home and monitoring our health on our own? Will smartphone apps start replacing many of the roles of the general practitioner?

It seems almost certain that doctors soon will be conducting tests right in the office in real-time. I could imagine a situation in which, during the pre-exam process, right after you are weighed and your blood pressure is taken, a nurse will also prick your finger for a speedy blood test. The results can go straight to your doctor's phone in the middle of the exam. No three-day wait for test results. No being sent off to a lab in another part of the building to get the blood drawn. That’s the good part.

Stuff gets interesting when you get people buying these for themselves. Would you spend $34 to find out you whether you have HIV, or to test your blood daily for vitamin deficiencies, or to spot potential long-term problems before they become dangerous, to identify cardiovascular disease? The price point at which such a tool becomes valuable to you depends on your own personal health status.

Outside of a very rigorous lab testing scenario, we don't really know what happens to a person's daily blood counts. If you tracked yourself daily, could you see deficiencies in your diet? Would you see early warning signs of stroke or cancer? What could we do with that data if it was collected and stored in a big data setting? We could potentially cure diseases with this kind of unprecedented data on our blood.

The University of Rhode Island has reduced its machine from the size of a shoe box to the size of a credit card. It isn't like you're setting up a giant lab in your house. Columbia has shown the way into making these cheap and easy to use. It is entirely possible to imagine we can monitor our fitness on a metabolic level daily or even hourly.

If we tied that to an app, would we even need a doctor? Couldn't the app tell us when it looked like our white blood cells were spiking and maybe we need some antivirals or antibiotics? Couldn't it warn us about heart disease before a doctor lectured us? The idea of a yearly checkup would become obsolete. We'd only need doctors when the warning signs showed something big.

Granted, we've got a problem with this. I don't exactly trust anything in the typical app store right now when it comes to information about my health. I'd be afraid of snake oil apps attached to my new home blood lab. I’d also be afraid of really bad programming. Could you imagine an app trying to be friendly and supportive and saying in the AOL voice, "You've got AIDs!" There are so many ways for things to go wrong. I'm dread the day when we'll be peeing on our phones as part of the health-monitoring process. Maybe medicine is best left to the professionals.

Still, it is hard not to see the giant repercussions of this. It puts power in the hands of the patient. It reduces testing time. It frees medical professionals to do more doctoring. It requires less training to enable more people to perform tests in the field. As we create tests for ebola, the flu, or other epidemic diseases, it may allow public health officials to stop the spread of diseases before they wreak havoc. If we can fight off the worst impulses of our nature, this could be the best medical breakthrough since antibiotics.

What do you think? Would you test your blood at home and rely on your smartphone for results? Would you allow an app to replace or at least supplement your doctor? Would it gross you out to take a blood sample with your phone and then use the same phone to make a call? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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