Detecting Cancer...With a Cellphone?

Takepart.com

Smartphone technology is often seen as much of nuisance as it is a convenience, but having that kind of communicative power at our fingertips has a surprising advantage: It’s serving as a bridge, bringing healthcare to Third World countries that had previously been too remote and too costly to reach.

The Kilimanjaro Cervical Screening Project is spearheading one use of smartphone technology in a way that’s surprisingly simple, but could end up saving thousands of women's lives.

Armed with screening kits, treatment tools and cellphones, teams of non-physician medical workers will visit remote locations in rural Tanzania to screen women for cervical cancer. Instead of the swab method used in the typical Pap smear, workers will use their cellphones to photograph a patient’s cervix, text the image to a physician, and then receive back a diagnosis and treatment recommendation.

But can it really be that simple? Dr. Karen Yeates of Queen's University, who is the lead investigator of the project, told CNN, "That's the beauty of it. For early grade cancers, those will be able to be treated right in the field, right in the rural area."

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), rates of cervical cancer in Africa are up to ten times those in developed countries, and among those diagnosed, about 50,000 women die from it annually.

Though cervical cancer has very low mortality rates in developed countries like the U.S., those rates are generally due to our regular screenings, which catch the cancer in its earliest and most treatable incarnations. However, in countries like Tanzania, women in remote villages obviously don't have access to those types of preventative measures. In fact, the WHO estimates that by the time most African women are diagnosed with the disease, they’ve already advanced into its latest fatal stages. But regular screenings could put a stop to that. 

The project is another way that the medical field is reimagining cellphones as a means of making healthcare rather effortlessly mobile in order to expand the world's access to it. Earlier this year, high school student Catherine Wong discovered how to turn her cellphone into a portable ECG machine. Her invention will bring heart monitoring capabilities to the most remote locations, with results that could be beamed to doctors no matter how far away.

The Kilimanjaro Cervical Screening Project recently gained its funding from being named one of the 68 finalists in Canada’s Grand Challenges, a fund awarded to medical innovators who’ve invented new systems or products to bring healthcare to the poorest parts of the world. The project's $100,000 prize will allow it to begin its initial trials.

So much of good healthcare rests on the early detection of illness, and now that geography and cost aren't the impediments they once were, patients in developing countries have real opportunities to survive illnesses once believed to be fatal. 

Do you expect that "mobile healthcare" may eventually become the standard method of care in countries like the U.S. as well? Let us know what you think about it in the Comments.

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A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and medical writer.  In addition to reporting the weekend news on TakePart, she volunteers as a web editor for locally-based nonprofits and works as a freelance feature writer for TimeOutLA.com. Email Andri | @andritweets | TakePart.com

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