SaMD Diabetes Software Experts

Using Smartphone Sensors to Develop Functional Health Apps

Smartphones contain a number of highly advanced sensors, yet few health apps utilize the data from these sensors to improve their functionality. Find out how you can take advantage of smartphone sensors when designing your mobile medical app.

We’ve talked extensively about the innovative and advanced sensors being developed in the pursuit of better disease management and treatment. But what if I told you that one of the most advanced sensing devices ever concocted is likely in your hand right now?

Believe it or not, your smartphone is equipped with dozens of highly accurate sensors that measure everything from movement and acceleration to humidity and air pressure. The average smartphone contains over a dozen sensors. Pair yours with a smartwatch and get an additional half-dozen sensors, including some highly useful biosensors. 

All this is to say that, in the pursuit of creating better, more effective medical devices, maybe we need not create new tech, at all. Perhaps all we need to do is find better ways of utilizing the tech we already have.

The Reluctant Relationship Between Smartphones and Health Apps

Open the app store on your smartphone and you’ll find hundreds if not thousands of wellness and health apps ready for download. Given this, you might think that the relationship between smartphones and health apps is a harmonious one that is growing as fast as other areas of medtech research.

Interestingly, this is not exactly the case.

Most of the health-related apps available for download on smartphones are considered “wellness apps.” That is, they don’t fall into the FDA’s definition of a medical mobile app (MMA) because they are not used to treat, diagnose, or monitor an ailment or disease. 

The number of smartphone applications that do fall under the umbrella of MMAs, or “health apps,” is surprisingly low. And of these, most are used only to send, receive, or interpret data recorded by another source, such as a wearable medical device, a separate sensing device that plugs into the phone, or hospital equipment.

Very few of these apps actually utilize any of the sensors present in the phone itself. Stranger still, the number of health apps that actually do use smartphone sensors has dropped dramatically over the past five years. This is despite the fact that smartphone and smartwatch sensors continue to advance. 

Taking Advantage of Smartphone Sensors

The number of sensors inside smartphones is staggering. Many of them offer huge potential for collecting data about the user’s health and habits. Whether you’re developing an app to interpret data sent by a separate device or are interested in utilizing some of the sensors already present in phones, understanding the potential buried in smartphone sensors can only benefit you and your future users.

Below are some of the most useful sensors commonly found in smartphones and smartwatches, their typical function, and potential uses for them in mobile medical apps.

Accelerometer

This common phone and watch sensor detects changes in orientation and measures acceleration forces. It’s commonly used for screen rotation, gaming control, and pedometer apps.

Accelerometers can also be used to track physical activity and exercise, providing useful data for apps intended to help with patient recovery, provide information on blood sugar trends, track symptom progression, and more. This sensor can also be utilized to analyze gait and mobility issues, providing insight for apps intended for people living with Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, or other musculoskeletal disorders.

Gyroscope

This is another sensor that is common in both watches and phones. It measures orientation and angular velocity. It’s often used in conjunction with the accelerometer for more precise motion tracking.

Motion tracking data produced by smart devices often contains data informed by both the gyroscope and accelerometer. As addressed above, this kind of data could be used in a variety of MMAs as a stand-alone metric or to be interpreted along with data gathered from separate devices, such as a continuous glucose monitor, or from other sensors within the smartphone.

Proximity Sensor

This sensor detects the presence of nearby objects without physical contact. It’s commonly used to turn off the display and disable touch functionality when the phone is held close to the ear during a call to prevent accidental input.

The proximity sensor is also responsible for your iPhone being able to tell when you are in bed and asleep. Tracking sleep patterns and restfulness using this sensor along with the heart rate and respiratory sensors in smartwatches have limitless applications in health apps. Sleep trends inform everything from symptom progression to recovery rate to mental health.

Ambient Light Sensor

In smart devices, this sensor measures ambient light levels and adjusts the screen brightness accordingly to optimize visibility and conserve battery life.

In terms of medical applications, this sensor can provide insights into the user’s exposure to light, helping to regulate sleep-wake cycles and improve sleep quality. For individuals undergoing light therapy treatment for conditions such as seasonal affective disorder, the ambient light sensor could trigger notifications about the intensity and duration of light exposure.

Barometer and GPS

This sensor measures atmospheric pressure. It’s used in conjunction with GPS to provide more accurate altitude data for location-based services and weather apps. 

Barometer sensors also offer the opportunity to assess breathing patterns by recording changes in respiration. This would be useful for apps made to detect or track anomalies such as sleep apnea. By tracking altitude changes, this sensor could also be used in conjunction with others to provide data on exercise patterns and track how symptoms change in response to elevation changes.

GPS

The GPS sensor in smart devices receives signals from satellites to determine the device’s location and enable mapping, navigation, and location-based services.

GPS data is another pivotal piece to amassing accurate activity and exercise data for a variety of uses within MMAs, especially concerning outdoor activities, such as running, cycling, or hiking. For apps made to help with life-threatening chronic and emergent conditions, such as type 1 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, GPS can be used to accurately determine the user’s location and facilitate emergency response services if other sensors determine the user is experiencing a medical emergency.

Temperature Sensor

In smartphones, this sensor measures the device’s internal temperature to prevent overheating and optimize performance. In some smartwatches, this sensor can also be used to determine the wearer’s temperature.

In smartwatches, these sensors can be used to monitor body temperature, aiding in the early detection of fever. They can also be used to track temperature variations over time to provide information on menstrual cycles, fertility, or recovery after illness or surgery.

Heart Rate Monitor

Most smartwatches are equipped with a heart rate monitor that uses optical sensors to measure blood flow in the wrist. It’s also possible to use smartphone sensors to measure heart rate by activating the camera and LED flash to detect changes in blood volume under the skin. 

Heart rate data is valuable for many applications and can easily be used along with other data points to assess activity, heart health, stress, recovery, symptom progression, and more.

Smartwatch Sensors

In addition to many of the above sensors, most smartwatches also contain biosensors, specifically, galvanic skin response, electrocardiogram, and blood oxygen sensors.

Incorporating data from these sensors into your MMA could provide a wealth of information on the user’s wellbeing and overall health. Galvanic skin response sensors, for instance, are a great tool for measuring mental health, stress levels, and sleep quality. Like heart rate sensors, electrocardiograms and blood oxygen sensors can be useful to just about any health app to inform baseline metrics and signal changes in overall health. 

Developing Smartphone Integrated Health Apps

If you’re considering developing a medical mobile app or health app, why not take advantage of the sensors already present in smartphones to increase your app’s functionality and user engagement? With so much untapped potential already contained within these devices, it’s difficult to understand why more medical device and software companies aren’t taking advantage. 

The most likely reason? A lack of understanding about how to develop a smartphone application that can integrate seamlessly with the data provided by these sensors. 

To do this, you need a software partner who understands not only how to build highly interoperable software but also software that can scale and adapt to keep up with the ever-advancing technology inherent in these smart devices.

This is where Sequenex can help. We have decades of experience designing and developing smartphone-compatible medical software. We also have an in-depth understanding of FDA and global regulations regarding MMA and health-related phone applications. 

If you have an idea for a health or wellness smartphone application, we’d love to talk to you about your vision and help you utilize the power of smartphone sensors to make it the best it can be. Connect with us today!

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