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Students Strive to Develop '10-Cent Medical Checkup' Using Cell Phones

If asked what they did over their summer vacation, four students enrolled in Caltech's summer undergraduate research fellowship (SURF) program may have a more impressive response than many of their peers. As part of a cell phone medicine project, the students have spent their summer developing and fine-tuning prototypes that could someday enable a 10-cent medical checkup for developing or remote regions.

Low-cost medical device prototypes are designed for use with cell phones. Image: Caltech

The concept for the cell phone medicine project, according to the team, stems from the observation that, in some regions such as India, patients are more likely to have a cell phone than access to medical care. "We want to exploit cell-phone technology and the Internet to provide inexpensive healthcare tests for the poor in remote rural villages," explains Mani Chandy, Simon Ramo Professor and professor of computer science at Caltech and one of the leaders of the project's leaders.

Using an Android phone as the base, the team is striving to create an array of medical devices that can connect to a cell phone and perform basic medical tests, including blood pressure evaluation, temperature readings, and heart monitoring. Existing cell phone-compatible prototypes encompass a cable-mounted stethoscope head that features a microphone and electronics encased in an aluminum enclosure as well as a device resembling an oven mitt that incorporates three piezoelectric sensors. When wearing the mitt, users can press it against their chest to record heart rhythms and the electrical signals for an ECG.

Ultimately, the team would like to develop software that could analyze the data obtained from these tests and determine results such as 'probably normal' or 'refer to doctor.' Results recommending the latter would then be uploaded to an Internet cloud through which doctors located almost anywhere could review the results and determine whether or not a patient should go to a clinic.

As I noted in an editorial earlier this year, designing low-cost medical devices for impoverished or remote areas is an important endeavor, despite the limited opportunity for revenue. And this project represents the latest example of students' and universities' innovative contributions to the field. Other such impressive ideas include researchers from the University of Texas at Austin that engineered a device to test for acute pancreatitis from Jell-o, milk, and Reynold's Wrap, and Rice University students that made a rudimentary centrifuge from a salad spinner and other everyday objects. --Shana Leonard

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