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Will the Smartphone Camera be a Setback for Telemedicine?

September 17, 2015

Telemedicine is rapidly on the rise, and we're seeing its arrival everywhere, from drugstore kiosks to the midst of upscale senior communities like La Vida Real. But there are some who find the rise of such technology a doubtful development, and are pointing the finger squarely at one likely failure point for telemedicine: the camera. Many are asking the question, can the common smartphone camera deliver the kind of photographic and video quality telemedicine really needs?

Smartphone cameras are proving to be an increasing part of clinical practice, not just in telemedicine, but also in physical practices as well. A study set up to determine if smartphone cameras were up to snuff when it came to clinical uses, and several major breeds of camera were used, mostly those in use from 2010 – 2012. Smartphones used included the iPhone 4, the Samsung Galaxy S2, and a BlackBerry Torch 9800, with a Canon Mark II digital camera with 35mm lens used for a reference standard.

The results, meanwhile, were telling. The iPhone 4 camera actually outperformed the Canon on several fronts, as the iPhone 4's output was considered the best of four identical images several times. The Samsung and BlackBerry entries also had several instances of being the “best” photo, and the reference standard Canon Mark II actually came in second in terms of overall instances of having the “best” photo. Essentially, not only did all three smartphones land results at least as good as the reference standard digital camera, but the iPhone 4 actually outperformed the reference standard more often than any other.

What's more, the study also noted that the older model smartphones were used as a way to provide “bottom line” results, noting that smartphones would be in a process of constant improvement. Indeed, several new generations have emerged since these tests—Apple is currently into the iPhone 6 lineup and Samsung has arrived at the Galaxy S6 line—so it's easy to note that quality has only improved since.

There were stirrings, not so long ago, that suggested the digital camera might well be doomed against a device that not only went everywhere with a user but could automatically upload pictures to social media or similar venues. The discovery that the resulting photos were every bit a match for—in some cases even better than—the digital camera was even worse for digital cameras. But for smartphones, for telemedicine, and for the rest of us this is great news. The ability to take pictures of strange lumps, unusual discolorations and any of a host of other symptoms and then route the output to health professionals who can determine if these are normal or causes for alarm is staggering. For underserved regions like rural areas or developing markets, this is a chance to be “seen” by a doctor without having to be in the room with him or her.

All it took was sufficient bandwidth to connect the two, and pictures of sufficient resolution to be usable in clinical settings. The smartphone, as it turned out, could do the job and then some even four years ago. Today it's only gotten better, so the rise of telemedicine—and the clinical smartphone—should carry on unfettered for some time to come. 

Edited by Dominick Sorrentino

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