Dr Phil Hammond, broadcaster and GP turned hospital doctor

Do you want to check your body as often as you check email? And would you like your patients to be able to do the same? Well, that may soon become possible, thanks to some recently launched electronic DIY health-monitoring devices.

Last year, one company launched a scanner that you hold to your temple, and in less than 10 seconds you get an accurate reading of pulse transit time, heart rate, electrical heart activity, temperature, heart-rate variability, and blood oxygenation. The company believes that these scanners will be ‘the biggest innovation in home medicine since the invention of the thermometer’.1 Add to this the plethora of apps already available for monitoring moles, cardio-fitness, sleep patterns, diet, relaxation, and stress, and the possibilities for electronic patient self-diagnosis and monitoring seem endless.

So what next? It all sounds like a hypochondriac’s dream, but the aim of these devices is to interpret data sensibly, helping patients and relatives decide when it’s safe to leave well alone, or when they need to get urgent help. In future, software may exist that will make the diagnosis for you if you fill in a symptom-sorter and send off a photo of your rash.

A new app is planned, which will link up with your phone to analyse your breathing rate and blood pressure without the need for a cuff, and check your urine for blood, protein, and infection. Then there’s the saliva cartridge that tests your spit for assorted microorganisms such as Strep. A, influenza A and B, adenovirus, and respiratory synctial virus. There could one day be an add-on to spot pregnancy complications. And it surely won’t be long before a USB brush does your cervical smear and checks you for herpes, gonorrhoea, and chlamydia all at the same time.

New technology will undoubtedly have a big role to play in empowering patients to stay healthy and manage their chronic diseases better. Remote technology is already being used in the NHS for patients with lung disease, heart disease, and diabetes. As well as telehealth to monitor their ongoing condition, patients can opt to receive telecoaching at home, to help them make lifestyle changes and improve their long-term health outcomes.2 I recently did a whole range of new-technology medical tests on patients for BBC1’s new health special, Long Live Britain, using only a tiny amount of blood and getting the results back in minutes instead of having to wait a week.

However, technology will never replace the human touch, and it’s hard to be your own doctor when results are confusing or equivocal, as they often are. Trials of new home-testing technology have only been shown to work (and save the health service money) when patients have quick access to experienced clinicians who can talk them through what to do. Slick promotional promises offering a DIY diagnosis for a sick child are all very well and doubtless very alluring for busy, anxious parents, but rare serious illness in children tends to creep up suddenly, and there’s always a danger of being falsely reassured by a machine.

So long as these devices don’t over-promise in their battle for customers, they could be of huge benefit. But they need to be evaluated in proper clinical trials, with all the data they produce joined up with the rest of your medical record, for anyone who needs to see it. And doctors are going to have to learn to live with hearing their patients say: ‘Please come quickly. My app says it might be serious.’

  1. Scanadu Scout™ (California, USA). Scanadu website. www.scanadu.com (accessed 27 June 2013).
  2. NHS Direct website. Long term condition support. www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/Commissioners/WhatWeOffer/LongTermCondSupp (accessed 27 June 2013). G