The Doctor Is in…Your Pocket

Written by | HIV, Wellness

From determining HIV status to monitoring blood pressure and performing ultrasounds, your smartphone is ready to play doctor.

Reviews of each new wave of smartphones usually focus on specifications like camera resolution and battery life or aesthetics like sleek design and screen size. But there has been a quieter trend developing for our pocket computers: smartphone attachments designed to diagnose disease.

New Frontiers in HIV Testing
The latest announcement of a new smartphone diagnostic accessory came early this year, when researchers at Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science revealed that they had created a new, low-cost smartphone attachment (referred to as a “dongle”) that is capable of diagnosing both HIV and syphilis from finger-prick blood samples in a mere 15 minutes.

The device is the first to replicate all the functions of a lab-based blood test without requiring a separate energy source (it draws power from the smartphone’s battery). Since it uses the phone’s audio jack for both power and information transfer, the device will work universally with both iPhone and Android devices. Its small size (it fits in one hand) allows for easy transport, and its independence from the power grid means it can travel to remote areas where testing is sorely needed and electricity isn’t guaranteed. Best of all is the device’s low cost: An equivalent lab setup would cost over $18,000; the dongle costs a mere $34 to manufacture.

“Our dongle presents new capabilities for a broad range of users, from health care providers to consumers,” says Samuel K. Sia, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia Engineering. “We might be able to scale up HIV testing at the community level [and offer] immediate antiretroviral therapy that could nearly stop HIV transmissions and approach elimination of this devastating disease.”

There’s an App For That, Too
While the prototype HIV-detecting dongle is at the cutting edge of what’s possible to diagnose with a phone, there are already commercially available smartphone accessories that can help keep an eye on your health. For example, Withings’ wireless blood pressure monitor ( can measure and track blood pressure readings over time, storing them in its companion phone app and uploading them to the Withings “health cloud,” allowing patients to provide doctors with a wealth of data beyond what a one-time in-office reading can provide.

In terms of making imaging technology more portable, there’s Mobisante’s smartphone ultrasound wand, the MobiUS SP1 System ( The small ultrasound wand, which makes the system portable enough for house calls, attaches to a smartphone, on which it can store and share images. This can help doctors diagnose more quickly, perform injections guided by imagery, and bring ultrasound technology to the 60 percent of the world for whom it is too expensive and or not portable enough.

The idea of a handheld device that can scan for and diagnose medical problems was once the realm of science fiction, but it turns out that we’ve been carrying around a prototype in our pockets for quite some time.

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Last modified: August 8, 2018