National News

July 24, 2013

Could a smartphone physical be in your future?

As my attending physician walked in with the next patient, I quickly stuffed my iPhone into my pocket. There was a strict "no cellphone" policy in the pediatric clinic where I was working as a third-year medical student. If my attending had caught me, I would have received a stern lecture about how cellphones were not to be used while patients were in the room.

We proceeded to examine the patient, a young boy named Tim, who had an earache. As part of the routine physical exam, I used my otoscope - a device first described in 1363 - to examine Tim's eardrum. Unfortunately, it was difficult to see the characteristic cone-shaped membrane. The more I maneuvered the otoscope, the more Tim yelped in pain. I finally gave up and admitted that I couldn't find the eardrum. Tim had been subjected to enough agony, and we sent him home with a course of antibiotics for a presumed ear infection. My attending later confessed that after 10 years of practicing, she still sometimes had trouble seeing the eardrum.

I remembered Tim's eardrum when reading the 2013 program of TEDMED, an annual conference in Washington showcasing the most promising medical advances in the country. A medical technology blog that I write for had organized an exhibit called "The Smartphone Physical" to showcase smartphone apps - many of them already commercially available - that doctors could use in a physical. As part of the exhibit, the team used CellScope, a mobile phone attachment to show attendees a picture-perfect magnification of their inner ear canal - much clearer than I'd seen with my otoscope.

I recently mentioned the device to a pediatrician. "That'll be the day," she replied.

 Many doctors share her skepticism of smartphones in medicine. Less than half of attending physicians in a recent survey reported using smartphones for patient care. Many doctors worry that these technologies will hurt their relationships with patients. In a 2012 essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Georgetown University physician Caroline Wellbery warned that "these devices deprive us of the very essence of presence. . . . We may be surrendering our capacity to be in the moment."

But what if these technologies not only make physicians' physical exams easier but also improve our interactions with patients? Smartphones can offer doctors a more reliable exam while increasing patient involvement in their care. Within the next decade, the smartphone physical might replace the traditional physical exam. Even now, the long-standing "routine physical" may no longer be so routine.

The traditional physical exam may be overrated when it comes to picking up diseases. A chest exam done as part of a physical, for instance, has been found to pick up only half of all pneumonias. A study found that stethoscopes wielded by young doctors correctly identified only one-fifth of previously diagnosed heart conditions.

So while the traditional physical exam may be hands-on, it's probably time to find ways to improve it; to me, smartphones offer that possibility.

Text Only
National News
  • Police: Suspected killers wore GPS devices

    Two convicted sex offenders dutifully checked in with police every month and wore their GPS trackers around the clock — the rules of parole that are designed to tip off authorities if a freed felon backslides.

    April 15, 2014

  • Questions linger year after Boston Marathon bombs

    A surveillance video shows a man prosecutors say is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev placing a bomb near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, just yards from where an 8-year-old boy was killed when it exploded.

    April 15, 2014

  • 10 Things to Know for Tuesday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Tuesday:

    April 15, 2014

  • Aw, geez, 'Fargo' is on TV with Billy Bob Thornton

    After failed attempts and broken dreams, by golly, someone went and put “Fargo” on series TV.

    April 15, 2014

  • Little sign of progress as Obama, Putin speak

    Speaking for the first time in more than two weeks, President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin showed little sign of agreement Monday, with the U.S. leader urging pro-Russian forces to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine and Putin denying that Moscow was interfering in the region.

    April 14, 2014

  • Drivers in California crash had clean records

    Both drivers in the fiery Northern California crash involving a FedEx truck and bus full of students had clean driving records.

    April 14, 2014

  • Post, Guardian win Pulitzers for NSA revelations

    The Washington Post and The Guardian won the Pulitzer Prize in public service Monday for revealing the U.S. government’s sweeping surveillance programs in a blockbuster series of stories based on secret documents supplied by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

    April 14, 2014

  • Police: Utah mom admitted to killing her 6 babies

    Authorities say a Utah woman accused of killing six babies that she gave birth to over 10 years told investigators that she either strangled or suffocated the children and then put them inside boxes in her garage.

    April 14, 2014 1 Story

  • Deal signs bill extending tax-free holiday weekends

    Gov. Nathan Deal today signed House Bill 958, legislation that will extend the statewide back-to-school tax-free holiday and ENERGY STAR and WaterSense appliance tax-free holiday weekends for an additional two years.

    April 14, 2014

  • Chances of getting audited by IRS lowest in years

    As millions of Americans race to meet Tuesday’s tax deadline, their chances of getting audited are lower than they have been in years.

    April 14, 2014