Turning Your Mobile Phone Into a Home Medical Device

Image courtesy of Cellscope

As mentioned in a previous entry, I spent both December 2010 and December 2011 in rural parts of India, working with tribal groups seeking medical care in under-resourced clinics. In addition to spending time in the hospital, I ventured to nearby cities and villages, with the goal of gaining a deeper understanding of lifestyles in rural India and challenges facing health care providers in the region. During these trips, I noticed that while many families struggled to find work, feed their kids, and stay healthy, almost every family had one resource in common: a cell phone.

CellScope, a startup born out of Professor Dan Fletcher’s lab at UC Berkeley, capitalizes on the widespread presence and use of cell phones in designing mobile devices focused on improving healthcare. The CellScope team stems from Rock Health’s first class, held in 2011, and has come together to produce a startup that, in the team’s own words, “uses patent-pending optical attachments to turn smartphones into diagnostic-quality imaging systems for healthcare, consumer skincare, and education.”

The idea is simple: take a cell phone, add a small attachment, and produce a compact medical otoscope (or dermascope, depending on the attachment) with the ability to create impact in developing and developed nations alike. Users can upload their pictures to CellScope’s centralized web platform, from which doctors can access photos and perform a diagnosis remotely, thereby preventing patients or busy parents from having to make the trek from home to the doctor’s office. This remote access to medical care is particularly valuable when – as in many developing nations – there is no doctor’s office nearby. The team is currently involved in several pilots but has already received an incredible amount of support. This past June, CellScope emerged from a round of grants with $1.1 million in funding. CellScope co-founder Erik Douglas thinks that the product could be on the market within the next year but notes that the team is still working on finalizing their design and developing an effective business model. Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies summarizes CellScope’s recent achievements and next steps: “Already, the team has successfully imaged malaria and tuberculosis (TB) using the CellScope system with image quality comparable to standard diagnostic microscopy. The diagnosis of tuberculosis is currently being piloted in partnership with UCSF in Uganda, in a test to compare diagnosis using the CellScope side-by-side with existing approaches. In the coming year, the team will launch a pilot project of integrating the CellScope with an existing rural telemedicine network in India.”

CellScope is game-changing because it could revamp the way individuals interact with clinics and care for themselves. TechCrunch estimates that in the U.S. there are 30 million visits to the doctor’s office each year for pediatric ear infections alone. With CellScope, that number could drop drastically, since parents could, for instance, make an ear infection diagnosis from their own homes. In developing nations, the potential and impact is greater still, since those who do not have access to proper medical care or nearly healthcare facilities can receive medical care remotely by using the cellphone attachment to collect images, send them to a physician, and receive a prompt diagnosis.

Essentially, CellScope neatly disregards “distance from a medical facility” as a barrier to healthcare. Though market prices have not yet been set for this product, the device is designed to be both small and affordable. This in turn allows individuals in poor rural areas a chance to purchase this product and practice self-care and preventive care. There are still details to be worked out (for instance: the device allows individuals to receive diagnoses remotely, but if they live in an isolated region, how will they receive follow-up medical care?) but in sum, this device is an exciting addition to the field of global health.