Associate Director and Head of Operations, Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab, MIT
I have an undiagnosed irregular heartbeat, one I’ve had for years. A skipped beat, a fluttering feeling in my chest. Sometimes just an isolated thing, occasionally something that will happen once or twice a minute all day long. I’ve guessed they are harmless PVCs—which my mother also experiences—but I’ve never had the evidence needed to establish this.
It’s not for lack of trying, but it’s been tricky to pin down, as it come and it goes. I once went to the emergency room for it, but by the time we filled out the paperwork and I was hooked up to an EKG, it had stopped. I wore a Holter monitor for a day–not a single irregular beat. It was getting to the point where I thought my PCP was beginning to doubt me on it.
The other day, as I was searching the Apple App store for heath apps to keep me on my exercise plan, I came across one that seemed to be too cool to not explore: Cardiio. It claimed to be able to read your heart rate using the front-facing camera by detecting subtle changes in facial coloration. It also purported to take heart rate using the main camera if you pressed your finger to it. How could I pass up checking that out?
Turns out, Cardiio was made using technologies developed at the MIT Media Lab, and performs exactly as advertised. Even more fun, it actually produces a waveform when it takes your heart rate. Using this feature, I was able to capture a few of the missed beats. It’s not capturing the electrical activity of the heart, just changes in coloration of the skin, but it’s a pretty interesting piece of data anyway—clearly showing the skipped beat, and in a way that—to my poor understanding of them—seems pretty consistent with PVCs.
At the very least I now have a piece of evidence that will change the discussion I have with my PCP from if I am having these irregular beats to what they are and why I am having them, all because of an app that requires no special equipment beyond what comes on my cell phone. This is great example of the impending wave of low-cost always-available health monitoring opportunities that will be coming at us in the coming years.
Soon we’ll be coming to our doctors not looking for them to do tests, but to help us sort through data we’ve already collected. And much in the same way that Apple and Google already use location data coming off of phones to generate traffic congestion data, these systems have the potential to give us unprecedented population-level health data that can be used to detect subtle changes in individual’s data which might be warning flags. In the near future, your phone may know you need to see your doctor well before either you or your doctor do.
There was a great piece on NPR recently that took as its departure point new health products available at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and delved into the potential power of the big data sets already coming online in electronic medical record systems. The piece provides a great sense of the potential for revolutionary change for medicine in the next decade.