The average auto refractor–that clunky-looking device eye doctors use to pinpoint your prescription–weighs about 40 pounds, costs $10,000, and is virtually impossible to find in a rural village in the developing world. As a result, some half a billion people are living with vision problems, which make it tough to read and work.
Ramesh Raskar knew fixing this problem would be tricky. It required a new way of thinking about eye tests–and a new kind of device, one powerful enough to support high-resolution visuals, cheap enough to scale, and simple enough to be used by just about anyone. The MIT professor briefly toyed with stand-alone options, which were complicated and costly. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out an unexpected savior: his iPhone.
“The displays had gotten so good, thanks to people wanting to watch episodes of Lost in high definition,” Raskar recalls. “I was immediately energized.”
By creating an app and attachment for the popular smartphone, Raskar could tap into a huge existing user base and skirt millions in distribution and manufacturing costs. The result: a plastic clip-on eyepiece that uses an on-screen visual test to determine a patient’s “refractive error” (a number doctors then use to dole out prescriptions). When his startup, EyeNetra, begins market testing later this year in Brazil, India, and Mexico–and eventually in the U.S.–its tech will deliver all the functionality of an optometrist’s costly machine for less than $30.
This is the thrilling, disruptive potential of “mHealth,” the rapidly growing business of using mobile technology in health care. Leveraging the wonders of a device that’s fast becoming ubiquitous–two in three people worldwide own a cell phone–a new generation of startups is building apps and add-ons that make your handheld work like high-end medical equipment. Except it’s cheaper, sleeker, and a lot more versatile. “It’s like the human body has developed a new organ,” says Raja Rajamannar, chief innovation officer at Humana. Smartphones can already track calories burned and miles run, and measure sleep patterns. By 2013, they’ll be detecting erratic heartbeats, monitoring tremors from Parkinson’s disease, and even alerting you when it’s prime time to make a baby.
At stake is the future of health care–and a share of the $273 billion medical-device industry, which is dominated by the likes of GE and Philips. Although today’s mHealth market barely tops $2 billion, experts predict that number will skyrocket over the next decade as smartphones get smarter and patients lose, well, patience with the high costs and hassles of health care. “Why prescribe a $1,000 test in the hospital when all you need is a heart rate?” asks Leslie Saxon, a cardiologist who heads the University of Southern California’s Center for Body Computing. With inexpensive new technology, she notes, “I could tell a patient to go to the drugstore and buy an ECG [electrocardiogram] sensor for her phone.”