Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Rhodri Marsden reports on a healthcare revolution

The best indicator we currently have of becoming unwell is that familiar, off-colour feeling. Our senses aren't infallible, of course – goodness knows how many false alarms and unexpected illnesses we've all had – but it's the most reliable early warning system we've got.

Technology, however, may be about to change that. Lurking within imminent updates of the two main mobile operating systems, Apple's iOS and Google's Android, lie two software frameworks (Health Kit and Google Fit respectively) that have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution". They enable apps to collect, collate and exchange information about our state of health that could ultimately usher in a new era where our phones may know we are unwell before we do.

First came the fitness gadgets and smartbands. With the likes of Nike's Fuelband, Fitbit's Force and Jawbone's UP, wearable technology scored its first significant consumer hit; we became fascinated by the data generated by our movements and the information that could be inferred from that. A recent study by Flurry Analytics found that usage of fitness apps is growing some 87 per cent faster than the app market in general, as people embrace tools that can reaffirm or improve their fitness levels.

What's intriguing, however, is the emerging grey area between fitness data and what could be termed health data. While smart bands and associated apps tend to collate relatively benign information such as hours slept, miles walked, caffeine consumed or time spent brushing your teeth, there's provision within Health Kit and Google Fit for information we'd more normally associate with a visit to our GP: blood pressure, oxygen saturation, hydration levels, blood sugar levels and heart rate. "It's a step towards more medically orientated devices that lend themselves to capturing data that health professionals can act upon," says Dr Dushan Gunasekera, founder of myHealthCare, a private polyclinic based in Wandsworth.

That data, of course, has to come from somewhere. Health Kit and Google Fit are merely aggregators that facilitate the ingenuity of software and hardware developers – and that ingenuity is currently being funded by big increases in health-related venture capital.

iPhone-compatible oximeters and blood pressure cuffs are already sold via Apple's website. There's Dario, a "mobile diabetes management platform" that combines a smart meter to measure blood sugar levels with a smartphone app which interprets that data, along with other information you provide regarding carb intake and exercise. The smaller and cheaper these health sensors become, the easier it will be for data to be collated; for example, Google is currently working on a smart contact lens that could assess glucose levels in a more unobtrusive way then Dario's smart meter. "Wearable devices are already used in the NHS to measure blood pressure and heart tracings," says Dr Gunasekera. "So [Health Kit and Google Fit] could easily end up becoming accessible to primary care physicians."

Apple's Health Kit has received backing from the Mayo Clinic, a Minnesota-based medical research group that has tested a system of direct notifications whereby clinics could inform patients of unusual patterns in the data they've received. "The big vision is to switch from the old patient funnel where you feel sick, tell a friend, see a doctor, get tests, receive the results," says Ben Heubl from Zesty, a healthcare appointment booking service. "The new funnel is different: you track your results anyway – because the devices do it for you – and book an appointment online automatically."

It's hard to imagine Heubl's vision of an efficient, device-driven, paperless healthcare system implemented any time soon within an organisation as large as the NHS, but he's at pains to stress that this kind of data collation within a "patient passport" isn't new. "Patients Know Best is an electronic medical record (EMR) system which already links to NHS practices," he says, "and already has partnerships in place that cover wearable tracking devices."

Our enthusiasm for accessing EMRs has not been overwhelming thus far. Google Health, launched in 2008 as a central repository for health-related information, shut down in 2011 after failing to strike much of a chord. Microsoft's Health Vault, which launched slightly earlier, is still knocking around despite minimal attention, but now accepts information from a number of modern health apps and devices.

But the burgeoning interest in wearables looks set to breed a new-found curiosity in our health data that extends beyond the usual hardcore of health obsessives. "GPs already get people who print out reams of information from the internet and walk in having already incorrectly diagnosed themselves," says Dr Gunasekera. "And this wealth of data will create anxiety among some people. But when a patient comes in, it's useful to have a historic set of data and metrics; you're able to correlate things a lot quicker in the initial consultation.

That's good from a private perspective, but ultimately it could lead to time saving and efficiencies in the NHS, too. There will be challenges and hurdles, but it feels like the first step towards this elusive thing that everyone talks about: preventative medicine."

Apps, data readouts and automated alerts do not provide much in the way of bedside manner, and it's clear that the role of the doctor will be crucial within any streamlined, data-rich vision of the future of healthcare – although many GPs may still view these innovations with suspicion. "You're always going to get resistance to technology," says Dr Gunesekera. "When automatic blood pressure monitors were introduced a lot of GPs were unhappy about using them, and there will be concerns about accuracy. But the other main concern is confidentiality. It's crucial that medical data cannot leak in any way." Even though tech giants such as Apple and Google will be only too aware of the critical importance of data security, well-publicised cases of data leakage are bound to breed a lack of trust in any company that retains sensitive health information in digital form.

Having said that, we've continually demonstrated how flexible our attitudes towards privacy are when fascinating technology is dangled before us. And the eventual successors to fitness bands, whether they're externally worn or even implanted, have the potential to offer us the ultimate benefit: a healthier, longer life. Gentle warnings about our blood pressure may flash up on our phone's screen, much in the same way we currently receive a text message or a weather alert.

Initially, such messages might make us anxious and cause our blood pressure to rise even further. But in the longer term, we may view them as a welcome reassurance that our health is being efficiently looked after.

Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
i100(More than you think)
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

    £39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Executive - Software

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + 55,000 OTE + benifits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Software Sa...

    Argyll Scott International: 2x Service Desk Analyst

    £20000 - £22000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: Service Desk Analyst Re...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Web Developer

    £20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of web an...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game