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Doctors Use Smart Phones to Make Good Calls on Diagnoses

  • Rose Hoban

Mobile phones have revolutionized communications in many countries making it possible for people in distant and rural places to connect. Now high-tech smart mobile phones may be on the verge of revolutionizing medicine, too.

Smart phones can send and receive data and images

In many countries, community health workers in rural areas have begun using smart phones to communicate with doctors at clinics and hospitals far away. But this communication goes beyond just talking. The newest smart phones have the ability to transmit data and images, as well.

One doctor from Johns Hopkins University wanted to see how well Apple's iPhone could transmit X-ray data. Radiologist Asim Choudhri was hoping doctors could use the popular touch-screen phone to help diagnose one of the world's most common problems – appendicitis.

"We thought that there are a lot of times where a physician having access to medical imaging data as soon as possible could benefit patients. But, then we wanted to see, well, if it's possible to get people the medical imaging data right away [and] is it going to be accurate for them to look at it, can they get valid medical information out of it looking at it on a smart phone," Choudhri says.

Digital appendicitis X-ray scans used for test

In many places X-rays and other scans are now recorded digitally, rather than to film, as they once were. As a test, the radiologist took digital radiological scans, called CAT scans, of patients who had appendicitis and some who did not. He asked five different radiologists to look at the scans using their iPhones.

"And we compared the accuracy of these radiologists looking at it on the iPhone with the accuracy using conventional means, which is a large, expensive computer workstation in the hospital. And we showed that the evaluation of the images on the iPhone pretty much matched the accuracy and the diagnostic ability when performed on a dedicated computer workstation," Choudhri says.

High degree of accuracy surprises the radiologist

The radiologists made an incorrect assessment less than 1 percent of the time using their smart phones. Choudhri says that's the same rate of error as doctors make in the hospital.

"A part of me strongly was wondering whether it would be this accurate and we were actually all surprised by the degree of accuracy," he says.

Though doctors have already tested this idea in many countries, Choudhri believes more rigorous study is needed to determine whether smart phones enable doctors to accurately diagnose patients. He says he'll continue to research this and other creative ways to use smart phone technology.

Choudhri presented his findings at the recent annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.