First pitched by Steve Jobs in 2007 as “an iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator,” the iPhone has since evolved into a medical device of sorts as software has gotten smarter and sensors have become more advanced in recent years.

Apple embraced this with iOS 8 and the rollout of HealthKit, a framework which allows medical and health apps to share data with each other and your doctors with your permission. Apple’s open source ResearchKit took it a step further by allowing developers to turn apps into scientific health and medical research tests.

Scientific American recently profiled three smartphone apps in development that point to how the iPhone could become even better at monitoring our health. The apps in development aim to determine what a patient’s cough means, diagnose sleep apnea, and even predict a bipolar episode before it starts…

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The University of Queensland in Australia is actively developing a smartphone app called ResApp that can diagnose asthma and pneumonia in patients by analyzing the sound signatures of just four or five coughs.

ResApp not only determines the cause of a cough, but it can even determine how severe a patient’s ailment is. In a small proof-of-concept test group two years ago, ResApp was able to diagnose patients with asthma or pneumonia with 90 percent accuracy while a current trial is being tuned to detect upper respiratory tract conditions, bronchiolitis, and bronchitis.

The publication says a version of ResApp could be ready for use by doctors as early as next year, although I imagine the ultimate goal is to make such an app available for use at home.

An app called Priori is being developed by researchers at the University of Michigan with the goal of predicting bipolar episodes in patients and alerting caregivers or doctors if needed. Priori listens to changes in voice speed and other patterns during phone calls to know when a patient with bipolar disorder may be about to experience an episode. Priori has already had some success in doing just that during trials and hopes to reach beta by next spring.

And for diagnosing sleep apnea, the University of Washington is developing an app that aims to replace sleep tracking equipment in a lab with the smartphone. The app pushes inaudible sonar sounds from the phone to a patient that bounce back and determine variations in breathing that can mean a patient suffers from sleep apnea. Trials have been so successful that only instances that doctors would classify as borderline were missed. Tests will next move from trial labs to patients’ homes.

Aside from the science fiction nature of these very real apps in development, I’m impressed by the range of areas that smartphone apps can potentially address. We see Apple building the frameworks right into the operating system now, and it’s clear researchers are making the most of the hardware we all have in our pockets now. You can read the full profile here.

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