Infectious diseases have ravaged continents, treatment-resistant superbugs are on the rise, and social stigma inhibits treatment of crippling psychiatric disorders. At times, the state of global health may seem hopeless and concerning. But in fact, a number of advances, from drug development to disease tracking, are helping people live longer at a scale that was previously unimaginable.

In the past decade, one technology, in particular, has had an outsized effect on global health: the cell phone. By reinventing the way we communicate with each other, even the simplest cell phone has enabled epidemiologists to track disease outbreaks with greater precision than before. Understanding how a disease spreads and where it spreads is crucial if researchers are to find a way to combat and, hopefully, defeat it.

Smartphones do even more to improve global health. The hardware has democratized health technologies that used to be too expensive or too physically far for most people to access. With smartphones, physicians can conduct sophisticated medical tests or procedures without setting foot in a lab; patients can better understand their own health and control their information.

Here are five ways that cell phones have had a fundamental effect on global health.

Providing Emergency Care

In case of a medical emergency, dialing 911 is the most reliable way to get help in a hurry. But for people who live in rural places, especially in underdeveloped countries, rapid emergency care is far from a guarantee. The app ‘MUrgency‘ promises to streamline that process. Depending on the type of emergency, it can connect patients to ambulances more quickly, or even provide users with a trained nurse to help them right at home.

The app is intended to compensate when the government can’t get the job done. Depending on where you live in the United States, it can take between six and 35 minutes for an ambulance to arrive in a medical emergency. MUrgency is designed to provide timely emergency care, whether a patient lives in a rural area or city. This is only possible thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones.

The service was launched in 2016 in Punjab, India with a network of 36 hospital emergency rooms, over 40 ambulances and 350 medical professionals. It won First Prize in Health & Wearables at the 2016 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. Today, patients can access responder services in the Punjab; those services are expected to become available in other cities such as Dubai by 2018.

Screening for Pancreatic Cancer

Image Credit: University of Washington

To diagnose pancreatic cancer, all you need to do is take a selfie. That’s possible thanks to researchers at the University of Washington who developed a smartphone app that can screen for pancreatic cancer. The cutting-edge technology uses computer vision algorithms and machine learning to identify jaundice in the whites of patients’ eyes. The jaundice is caused by high levels of bilirubin, a yellow compound that can indicate the early stages of pancreatic cancer.

In a study of 70 people, the app had a success rate of about 90 percent, about the same accuracy as the blood tests that are the current standard.

“The hope is that if people can do this simple test once a month — in the privacy of their own homes — some might catch the disease early enough to undergo treatment that could save their lives,” Alex Mariakakis, a doctoral student at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering tells University of Washington News.

Detecting Pathogens In The Blood

Image Credit: Columbia University

Doctors use test patients’ blood to check for a number of elements of health, from detecting cholesterol levels to diagnosing rare tropical diseases. Most blood tests require a laboratory for analysis, but sophisticated labs and equipment are not always available, depending on where the patient is located. For remote clinics, sending off the samples and waiting for the results can take days or weeks, and during this time, a patient obviously isn’t receiving treatment. To speed up that process, researchers from two universities have miniaturized a blood lab into a handheld device that is compatible with a smartphone.

A single drop of blood is all it takes to test for Zika, dengue, and other infectious diseases.

The device itself (without the smartphone) is only the size of a credit card. Grooves in the chip suck in small amounts of blood that are lit up by the smartphone’s LED. A group of sensors analyze how light passes through the blood, which the system compares to the results of tests found to be positive. The entire test takes ten minutes. “Labs-on-a-chip” are cheap and fast, and diagnostics can be carried out in virtually any environment.

The researchers hope their device can detect even more pathogens in the future. A similar lab-on-a-chip, created by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy & Immunology in Leipzig, Germany, can detect E. coli and salmonella pathogens in the blood.

Similarly, researchers at Columbia University have developed a smartphone dongle that can diagnose HIV and syphilis in just 15 minutes. “Coupling microfluidics with recent advances in consumer electronics can make certain lab-based diagnostics accessible to almost any population with access to smartphones. This kind of capability can transform how health care services are delivered around the world,”  Samuel Sia, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University, said in a 2015 article published on the university’s website.

Tracking the Spread of Disease

Epidemiology is a deceptively complex field. Researchers have to pinpoint the origin and cause of an outbreak, often as it continues to spread. Collecting data can be difficult in rural areas; infrastructure can limit communication. Even if scientists have a good understanding of the symptoms of the disease and the way it is transmitted to humans, they may still struggle to keep track of those who are infected.

Cell phones have changed that. Now researchers are able to track the malaria parasite across Kenya. By overlaying maps of the prevalence of malaria over call or text data that tracked individual callers’ movements, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have helped officials strategically deploy mosquito nets, control task forces, and medications in Nairobi and surrounding areas to prevent malaria from spreading there.

Healthcare workers themselves communicate much more efficiently via short messaging services (SMS), according to a 2010 review. In South Africa, SMS allowed HIV-positive patients to notify or trace partners, track doctor’s appointments, and employ prevention techniques.

Foster Communication

Image Credit: MedicalExpo

Cell phones have also helped healthcare professionals share collected data, expertise, and other insights, no matter where they live. Social networks such as doximity allow over half a million doctors to connect over the internet to share information and to peer-review each other’s work while still keeping identifying patient information confidential.

It also helps doctors streamline their workload — doctors can now access patient records directly on the app, or they can even call patients seamlessly. The patient can choose to either log in online, using their e-mail and password, or contact their healthcare professional directly through the app.

As chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension become more prevalent, smartphones allow doctors to remotely monitor patients’ health. Healthcare professionals can provide advice based on data that the patient collects.

Disclaimer: The Dubai Future Foundation works in collaboration with Futurism and is one of our sponsors.