Mobile Phone – the real Doctor McCoy

Posted on May 17, 2008  /  3 Comments

Remember in Star Trek Dr. Leonard McCoy, nicknamed Bones, would use a handheld device (shaped like a mobile phone) to scan the vital signs report of a patient; the little screen on the device would make some electronic noises and display some random illuminated pixels, which he would interpret to diagnose the condition of the patient; thereafter, he would use the same device or the wrist device to call “Sick Bay” tell them what to do with patient diagnosed outside of the facility. He would even transfer the diagnostic report to Sick-Bay for the on duty staff to pickup to get ready before the patient arrived.

A team of researchers at the University of California, Berkley are using mobile phones that display faint blue dots on the screen received through a text message to diagnose signatures of Malaria. The Science and Technology article of the Economists tells the story about Dr. Fletcher imposing a challenge on to his students to turn a mobile phone in to a microscope.

While the Berkley project uses the mobile for interpreting health related statistics, LIRNEasia intends to field test the use of mobile phones for collecting health related information for disease surveillance and notification. LIRNEasia believes that the biggest challenge is the gathering of health data for any kind of statistical analysis. Indian Institute of Technology – Madras Rural Technology Incubator (IITM-RTBI) will partner in the project to develop an interface for Healthcare Workers in Sri Lanka and the state of Tamil Nadu – India to install on their personal mobile phones to feed health information to the regional epidemiology units. This will speed up the real-time capabilities of performing statistical analysis in order to detect any unusual events in the health records that may trigger early signs of disease outbreaks. The current paper based system does not provide the regional/state disease surveillance facilities with timely data for early detections. IITM has already developed a remote medical diagnostic unit which can gather a patient’s vital signs in a rural village through a computer (without the assistance of a health professional) and transmit the report to a Doctor in a city for diagnosis (no old fashion stethoscope involved here). It want be too long before the same features of the remote medical diagnostic unit will be embedded in a mobile phone.

LIRNEasia and IITM-RTBI will add on to the ongoing work of the open source consortium: openROSA, comprising members of organizations like dimagi, Makerere University, University of Berkley, EpiHandy and EpiSurveyor, who have developed a series of “X Forms” specifically for collecting health related information via mobile phones.

A decade ago, in this region, all that a doctor would have on them is a Stethoscope draped around their neck. Over the past half a decade we noticed doctors carrying a mobile phone along with the Stethoscope. Soon that stethoscope will disappear and the mobile phone will be the “Real McCoy”. I wouldn’t be surprised one day the mobile phone coupled with medical diagnostic tools is all what a doctor would posses.

related link:: Real-Time Biosurveillance for Early Warnings in Sri Lanka, Colloquium.


  1. Small correction: EpiSurveyor is the name of our free, open-source mobile data collection product (downloadable at our website and at, while is the name of our organization — which is a member of the openROSA consortium.

  2. U of Calgary in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Livestock Development Board has begun a project on animal disease surveillance – . The group will be using EpiSurveyor application on high end mobile phones or PDAs to collect and track diseases emerging in farms.

  3. slowly slowly getting there with the mobile phone replacing medical instruments; I’m sure the next hack will be a pressure monitor; while UCLA has done it again with a new innovation: blood tester –