iPhoning Your Health

Mental health smartphone can talk to you about health issues

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) What if a look at your phone could tell you how physically active you are, how social you've been, and even tell you if you're displaying signs of depression? There's an app for that.

Whether we're walking with our phone in a pocket or bag, or having a quick conversation with a friend, the sensors in our phones are capturing information about our lives. A team of computer scientists has harnessed the power of these sensors to understand trends in our day to day health, which could be useful to both doctors and patients.

"Your phone can capture useful information about your health."

The smartphone application is tentatively called Be Well. Users monitor their health, by looking at their phone's wallpaper.

Be Well is an “active wallpaper” - meaning, the background image of your phone changes according to different information it receives. The user is represented as a clownfish. The fish around the main clownfish represents how social the user is.

If there are a lot of fish around, the user has had a lot of social interaction, and if the other fish are faded into the background, the user has been more isolated.

The clownfish moves about slowly, or does somersaults, depending on how active the user is. Sleep is represented by the color of the water. It's clear and bright for enough sleep, and dark and cloudy for not enough sleep.

The user can also check their health scores compared to others. All of the aspects of the app are calculated using the phone's sensors.

dailyRX spoke with Tanzeem Choudhury, a computer scientist at Cornell University. She's one of the developers of the app, which was funded with support from Intel. She said that the app's goals are threefold. First, it can assist in early detection of mental health problems by recognizing and tracking changes in social and physical behavior.

Second, it can help doctors manage their patients' health by providing them reliable data on their lifestyle. And thirdly, Dr. Choudhury wants to get people more engaged with their health by providing easily accessible and actionable feedback.

Of course, this data collection and analysis relies on sophisticated use of the sensors. DailyRx asked Dr. Choudhury how a phone's microphone can give information about someone's mental state.

“What we are now using for the mental health dimension is analyzing a lot of the speech information,” she said. “How much do you speak? Are you having conversations with others? Within that, how you do intonation? If people are depressed they are flat and monotonous, and their rates of speech slow down.

We look at how they're speaking, how much they're speaking, and frequency of conversations they're actually engaged in. With these measures, how does it compare to surveys that doctors use to get estimates of mental well being?”

The app doesn't record or listen to your conversations, it simply analyzes these aspects of your speech. To translate the user's behavior into a medical understanding of mental health, Dr. Choudhury and her team map the data onto doctors' “gold standard” surveys of mental health.

Currently, these mental health surveys are self-reported – meaning, the patients are responsible for describing their own behavior. The idea behind Be Well is that phones can more accurately report behavior using solid data, and provide the user with feedback and motivation to change their behavior.

“Based on that score, we would trigger certain types of messages that might be effective for someone in that state,” Dr. Choudhury said. The phone might send a text or alert to the user to go for a walk or meet with friends, if they haven't been socially or physically active. She added that for a user with more severe depression, the messages would have to be very sensitive to their mental state.

The app has been tested in elderly individuals, and the team of scientists has published a number of papers on their methods as Be Well has been in development. Choudhury works with Dr. Deborah Estrin at UCLA and Dr. Ethan Berke and Andrew Campbell at Dartmouth University.

Choudhury expects Be Well to be in online app stores in the next two to three months.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 13, 2011
Last Updated:
November 14, 2011