How smartphones are spotting medical problems for their users

Though research has shown smartphones may cause health problems such as depression and sleep disruption, scientists are now noting the data collected by these devices can be used to detect and predict certain health issues, according to NBC News.

For example, how often a person calls and texts others may reveal social isolation, an indicator of depression. Alternatively, data gathered from a phone's GPS sensors could show when the user isn't getting enough exercise or sleep, and early signs of cognitive problems, like dementia, may appear as delayed reaction times exemplified in how a user interacts with the phone's touchscreen.

"All mental illnesses have some behavioral, social or cognitive component that is likely already being recorded or [manifested] in the ways we use smartphones," John Torous, MD, co-director of the digital psychiatry program at Boston-based Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told NBC News. "The challenge is identifying what those signals are and separating them from what is noise."

Dr. Torous built an app to collect smartphone data from patients with depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease. He notes that subtle changes in a person's behavior or daily routine, which are often captured in phone data, may signal mental health problems.

However, patient privacy remains a concern. "People may be surprised to find that personal data entered into a mental health app is forever out of their control," Dr. Torous told NBC News.

While many other apps tracking behavioral health exist or are in development stages, experts note the key to success is creating a system that works in the phone's background, without the user's awareness.

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