Camera Phones for Diagnoses

The uses for camera phones continue to expand, as more users think creatively about ways to take advantage of quick snapshots on the go. A person who accidentally stumbles on a newsworthy event can get extra cash by sending the first pictures to news sources, particularly local television stations. If the camera on the phone has a sufficient number of pixels, the image will be clear enough for even a large plasma screen.

Now a new use for camera phones has turned up: diagnosis of flesh wounds and other skin problems, including  rashes and infections. In a study conducted by Neal Sikka of George Washington University, individuals who come to the ER for skin-related issues are recruited to participate by completing a questionnaire and taking pictures of the problem area with their camera phones. Physicians in the study look at the pictures and the questionnaires to inform a diagnosis, which is then compared with the ER diagnosis for accuracy.

Since May, when the 6-month study began, accuracy has averaged 90% (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/30/AR2010083003939.html?wpisrc=nl_tech) This positive outcome suggests that mHealth may continue to expand and become a common service of physicians.

However, there are pitfalls to this new use for technology (as always!). What if your email is not protected by appropriate security measures, such as encryption? Medical data and financial data are the most sensitive kinds of personal information, and emails for diagnoses are likely to contain both.

An obvious way that information could be acquired is by hacking into the system itself. However, that isn’t always necessary with wireless signals. Just as wireless Internet can be stolen, mobile phone connections can also be tapped.

The results of the study are not complete, and if physicians volunteered participation they were self-selected. Thus the reports are only preliminary and may be biased in favor of doctors who are already technology users. There is no way at present to establish a “control” group — another issue with the study methodology.

Finally, liability will certainly be a huge problem for doctors who diagnose using mobile phones pictures, in a similar way that diagnosing a psychiatric illness over the phone would be. The inability to view the wound from different angles, to touch it (with gloves, of course), or check circulation both proximally and distally could prevent diagnosis of a serious problem. Until and unless the extravagantly high awards for malpractice suits are managed with new legal statutes, the expansion of diagnostic possibilities available through technology such as camera phones may languish due to fear on the part of doctors.

Tort reform in Texas (my home state) has been an effective strategy to limit non-medical awards to $250,000 and thereby put a lid on the amount of money a physician can be charged for vague issues such as “pain and suffering.”

Final opinion from WideEyedBohemian: Diagnosis via camera phone may help doctors diagnose some types of illness, particularly for people who live in remote rural areas. However, caution is still needed at this time.