Whether you need a life hack to help you cope with your everyday, a glorified pedometer that claims to help you achieve your weight-loss goals or help finding your soul mate, there’s an app for it. The market seems saturated with them.
But smartphone apps have recently been making headlines in the medical field as well. While some have cautioned against prematurely embracing smartphone medical apps developed by for-profit companies, the potential that some of them have in remote areas where medical staff and equipment are scarce is arguably significant.
One such app converts a smartphone or tablet into an electroencephalography, or EEG, machine. An EEG machine records electrical signals from the brain, converting them into wavy lines on a computer screen. They are used, among other things, to diagnose epilepsy.
A quick check on a medical equipment site shows these machines range from nearly $5,000 to more than $10,000, depending on the model. They’re expensive. And we’re not even talking how much it costs someone in the United States without healthcare coverage to get one (it depends on where you go and how much extra you have to pay for the office visit).
It’s no wonder, therefore, that this EEG smartphone and tablet app is being tested in the Kingdom of Bhutan, where, according to one of the leaders of the Bhutan Epilepsy Project, there are zero neurologists practicing full time and only one EEG machine to cope with the estimated 10,000 cases of epilepsy in the mountainous nation. That machine — said Farrah Mateen, a neurologist and faculty member of both the University of Ottawa and the Massachusetts General Hospital of Harvard Medical School — is “working intermittently at the Jigme Dorji Wangchuk National Referral Hospital, the tertiary care center in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu.”
The Bhutan Epilepsy Project — funded the Canadian government and part of the Grand Challenges Canada (nonprofit) project — was established in an effort to help rural community health workers connect with neurologists in distant centers so they can identify seizure disorders and get much needed treatment to people with epilepsy.
According to Dr. Chencho Dorji (Bhutan’s first psychiatrist) in an article that ran in The Star, “Epilepsy patients do not receive optimal care and treatment because of a number of reasons, such as lack of awareness of the disease, belief in supernatural causes, stigma and ... lack of skills and knowledge among health providers.” It’s a sobering point compounded by those who live days away from the capital city and find it difficult, if not impossible, to make the journey.
“Populating the world with neurologists, which involves training of a decade or more, is impossible. But we can roll out technology that is cheap and simple to use,” explains Mateen. This technology, in essence, turns a smartphone or tablet into a portable (not to mention cheaper) EEG machine that gives people in the remoter areas of the country access to the diagnosis and treatment they need. The portable brain scanner, according to the New Scientist, was developed by Jacob Eg Larsen and Arkadiusz Stopczynski at the Technical University of Denmark, near Copenhagen. Along with the smartphone or tablet, there is a “simple electrode skullcap to monitor brain signals.”
According to an interview with BBC’s Radio 4, which aired early this year, the group is conducting validation studies to see if the EEG results are accurate. Part of those tests involves determining how accurate results are when older smartphones are used. The app has been development for three years, and the two-year project began normal controls in Bhutan October 2013. The group is ready to start testing on children and people with epilepsy.
With more of these apps hitting the market, including those developed by for-profit companies, we must note the need for widespread and continuing technical and medical verification. A misdiagnosis can be as dangerous as no diagnosis. As for apps that turn devices into diagnostic tools, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed it will be regulating them.