iPhone 4's motion detectors open up a new class of medical apps for British doc

What drives a physician to become a smartphone app developer? Often, it's curiosity and a little bit of luck.

Such is the case for Dr. Neil Paul, a British general practitioner who's now working on his fourth iPhone app, one that takes advantage of the new iPhone 4's motion-detection capabilities to help treat tennis elbow and related ailments. "[The iPhone 4] has a gyroscope, compass and accelerometers, so it knows the speed and angle of an exercise and can detect if they're being done properly. It's an exciting new area for medicine," Paul tells Canadian Healthcare Technology's Technology for Doctors.

Paul, who is part of a 15-physician primary-care clinic in Cheshire, England, had been developing iPhone apps for about two years, when his practice helped develop cardiovascular risk-screening software. "I ended up looking at the algorithms the programmer wrote," Paul recalls. "Just to see if I could do it, I bought a book on Amazon about programming iPhones and developed iCalcRisk," a free app that calculates risk for heart disease, following on British Cardiac Society recommendations.

Word of mouth among colleagues led Paul into his next project, A2Z of Dermatology. Based on an award-winning reference text, the app explains 115 diagnoses, each with zoomable, high-quality images. To date, Paul has sold more than 7,000 copies in the Apple App Store, at about $2.99 each. Another app is a study guide for medical students.

The popularity of his apps has been a mixed blessing. "The constant demand for new features is very interesting to me as a developer but it's difficult to cope with, because we want to get new apps out but we also need to keep the old ones up-to-date," Paul says.

He has no apprehensions about working to unlock the power of the iPhone 4. The motion detection offers all kinds of potential beyond aiding in treatment of musculoskeletal conditions. "It could be used to measure the patient's chest inspiration and expiration in pulmonary rehab. The level of detail is quite precise in the iPhone, and people always have their phones with them," Paul says.

But as the technology improves, it is becoming more difficult for someone like him to jump into the app game. "Innovation is difficult at large corporations, and I like to think the small guy can get involved," according to Paul. "The problem is, as the complexity grows with iPhone, iPad, different operating systems, it will become difficult for amateurs to keep on top of that. This will break the original wonder of the iPhone: Anyone could pick up a book and learn how to program it."

For more:
- read this Technology for Doctors feature