"From a conference at the White House this past Monday to trips scheduled for San Diego and Japan, University of Memphis computer science professor Santosh Kumar is a nationally recognized voice in the field of mobile health.
Photo by Kyle Kurlick
One major goal of mobile health, nicknamed "mHealth," is harnessing smartphones to collect data in the real world that will help medical scientists find out just when drug abusers get high, smokers take that puff, overweight people grab the chips and a congestive heart failure sufferer needs attention.
Armed with such detailed information, researchers want to be able to prevent chronic conditions and predict when and how to intervene with strategies ranging from medicine to a smartphone apps.
The smartphone has ushered in an era when exposure to stress, environmental and social influences can be measured without the person carrying the phone giving it a second thought, Kumar said. "What we need are tools that can help quantify the exposure of the person in their daily life," he said.
"Our work is exactly trying to fill that gap, it's using sensors that can be carried by the person in their natural environment to be able to measure those environmental exposures, those influences, those triggers, those cues and the reactivity of the person to those cues," he said.
Seated in his Dunn Hall office on the university campus, Kumar outlined what information about a person's lifestyle and environment can be gleaned from the sensors installed in an average smartphone.
The global positioning system shows which places a person went and how much time they spent there. Health researchers could tell whether a person was in a bar or a park, for example. An accelerometer, which basically measures vibrations, and a gyroscope, which allows the smartphone screen to follow the position of the phone, can be used to tell wither a person is walking, running, biking, driving and, if driving, how hard they are braking. They can offer clues about stressful moments and sedentary behavior.
The microphone, when not in use for calls, can be "repurposed" to capture social interactions, conversations, and to provide information about the surrounding sounds, such as whether a person is watching television or a movie.
Working with a large, multidisciplinary team — researchers and students stretching across 10 universities, Kumar is helping to develop "wearable" sensors and software that could make smartphones data gathering tools that any number of people could wear to shed light on behaviors and environmental factors to improve health care.
An Ohio State University colleague, Emre Ertin, developed a stretchy belt and sensors called AutoSense that monitor heart and breathing throughout the day. The patterns can help identify health issues ranging from stress to smoking and when a person takes illicit drugs, Kumar said.
A conversation with a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctor in Memphis about measuring the fluid around the hearts of congestive heart failure patients led to another project, EasySense, he said. Another Ohio State University doctor, William Abraham, is working on a sensor that won't touch a person's body but uses weak radio frequency waves like radar to measure fluid build up.
Ertin at OSU also developed a "smart watch" that better pinpoints moments such as when a person is lifting their arm to smoke.
Collaborators at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have developed smart glasses that can be used to detect environmental clues, such as whether seeing another smoker or an advertisement triggered someone trying to kick the habit to light up.
Kumar, 36, earned his masters and Ph.D. at Ohio State University and said he joined the U of M faculty seven years ago to work with "some very smart mathematicians" at the university.
A National Institutes of Health Gene Environment and Health Initiative program led him to the mobile health field and developing sensors for stress and addictive behaviors in 2007. That was followed by being named by Popular Science magazine in 2010 as one the nation's 10 most brilliant scientists under age 38, being tapped to chair an NIH and National Science Foundation meeting on evidence-based mobile health, being selected as one of 22 to meet the NIH director at a future funding meeting earlier this year, and this past Monday talking about biosensors at a White House conference about technology innovations for substance abuse and mental health treatment.
A married father of two and originally from Patna, India, near Nepal, Kumar said mobile health represents a great opportunity for a nation where battling health care problems and costs has shifted from treatment to predicting and preventing chronic disease.
"Mobile health couldn't have come at a better time," Kumar said. "You have the potential solutions that need the right evidence, but have the potential to really solve the crisis."'