The Doctor in Your Pocket

The Doctor in Your Pocket

By Daniel Stolte
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If you're like most people, chances are your cell phone or perhaps even a smart mobile device goes with you wherever you go, every hour of the day, every day of the week. Because they're always with us, mobile communication devices are ideal for applications that monitor individual health or send health-related information. 

In an effort to increase communication and collaboration across various disciplines of researchers working with technology to improve human health, a group of University of Arizona researchers has come together to create the UA Mobile Health Special Interest Group – "mHealth SIG" for short. 

"How can we use mobile technologies to assess the health status of individuals and populations and find new ways of improving health? That’s what mHealth is all about," explained Melanie Hingle, assistant research professor of nutritional sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She chairs the initiative’s steering committee. 

"Comments collected through our recent survey of the UA faculty confirmed that mobile health-related research efforts are being undertaken across campus in all the colleges and units," Hingle said. "Most people these days have mobile devices. They take them wherever they go, which makes them ideal instruments for collecting real-time data over long durations as well as delivering health-related information to people in real-time."

The group brings together researchers from a range of disciplines, including experts in health behavior change, medicine, computer science and engineering, with the goal of improving campuswide communication on research topics, concentrating expertise and avoiding duplication of efforts, fostering collaborations between colleges and units and increasing the impact of health outcomes. The group also hopes to eventually bring new technologies, methods and approaches to the market. 

"We want to provide an infrastructure that can be used to share expertise and data across the UA as well as between universities in such as way that fosters collaboration and reduces research silos," she said.

"I don't know how to build sensors, but the engineers do," Hingle said. "The main objective of the special interest group is to help faculty, staff and students with specific expertise to meet other people working on similar problems, in order to learn from each other, and find partners with whom they might collaborate."

Specifically, one of mHealth’s major goals focuses on addressing public health challenges, such as the prevention and treatment of diseases and conditions that are affected by lifestyle choices and behavior. 

The members of mHealth are working on technological applications as diverse as  apps to allow physicians to monitor patients remotely and in real-time, vibrating displays for visually impaired users, new small-antenna concepts or microfluidic devices that can be used for medical diagnostics, food safety and environmental monitoring, or electronics that dissolve once they have done their job. Others are investigating the role that social interactions play in health and disease, for example, how mobile apps can help people quit smoking.

One such app is currently under development by Judith Gordon, associate professor and associate head for research in the family and community medicine department. The app is intended to help smokers make the most of tobacco cessation medications. 

"The RxCoach app will go beyond a simple reminder system," Gordon said. "The app is designed to overcome the most common barriers people face when taking medication, including what to do when experiencing side effects, and to increase communication between the smoker and their physician." 

"I've been inspired by learning about the work of other members of the group," she added, "and I have developed collaborations that resulted in new mobile health projects."

"What’s so exciting about this initiative is that I can talk with researchers who have societal-scale problems, and provide them with a workforce to address those problems," said Jonathan Sprinkle, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, who teachers a software engineering course that uses mobile devices as the primary platform. 

"This term we have more than 40 students who will be able to turn someone's requirements into an app," he explained. "They will have expertise in integrating sensors, cameras and people, all on a device that makes up nearly 70 percent of the U.S. market of mobile phones."

Sprinkle said the pervasiveness of mobile devices is a game-changer for much more important things that an addictive new game: It changes how people make decisions, and how people share data. 

"With these devices, we can find out more than just whether someone is feeling happy or sad; we can find out where they’re feeling happy or sad. That’s a game-changer."

As if these kinds of questions are not motivation enough, Sprinkle said, the global market for smartphones in the next few years will focus on the developing world, where health care needs outstrip the traditional models of health care delivery. 

"Our students, and our faculty, are uniquely poised through this group to make an impact far beyond Arizona." 

Mobile health technologies are not limited to phones. Sensors can be built into clothing or accessories like watches.

"For example, by carrying an accelerometer on your body, you can keep track of how fast you are moving and in what direction, as well as how much energy your body expends at any given moment," Hingle explained. "Such data can be extremely helpful in managing body weight or diabetes."

Currently, the mHealth Special Interest Group includes members across campus with funding support from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, the College of Science, the BIO5 Institute, the College of Engineering and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Biannual meetings bring together interested faculty, professional staff and students, and include several speakers from outside the UA, including the government, other academic institutions and the technology and health care industries, to share information and participate in discussions. The group will come together again this spring. To find out more, contact Hingle at hinglem@u.arizona.edu or 520-621-3087.

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