Urinary tract infections aren't life-threatening, but they can be excruciatingly painful and debilitating.
"Overnight, I'd be gripped by this searing pain and I can barely walk," says Ling Koh, a Los Angeles-based bioengineer. But short of going to the ER or urgent care, she'd have to suffer for a few days until she could get in to see her family doctor for an antibiotic prescription.
Smartphones are now able to do on-the-spot diagnostic tests that were previously only able to be performed in a lab.
No longer. Koh, who works for Scanwell Health, was instrumental in the development of the company's smartphone app that is FDA-cleared for urinary tract infection screening. It allows someone to test urine at home using a paper test strip — the same one used by doctors in ERs and labs. The phone app reads a scan card from the test kit that can analyze what's on the strip and then connect the patient to a physician who can make a virtual diagnosis.
Test strips cost $15 for a three-pack and consultation with a doc is about the same as an average co-pay -- $25, and the app matches the quality of clinical laboratory tests, according to the company. Right now, you can get a referral to a telehealth visit with a doctor in California and get a prescription. A national rollout is in the works within the next couple of months.
"It's so easy to use them at home and eliminate the inefficiencies in the process," says Koh. "A telemedicine doctor can look at the test results and prescribe directly to the pharmacy instead of women waiting at home, miserable, and crying in the bathtub."
Scanwell is now involved in an ongoing National Institutes of Health- sponsored study of chronic kidney disease to test a version of the app to identify patients who have the disease, which affects more than 30 million Americans. "Because kidney disease has virtually no symptoms, by the time people realize they're sick, their illness is advanced and they're ready for dialysis," says Koh. "If we can catch it sooner, early intervention can help them avoid kidney failure."
Smartphones have changed society — and now they may change medical care, too. Thanks to the incredible processing capabilities of our smartphones, which come equipped with a camera, access to the internet and are thousands of times faster than the 1960s era NASA computers that ran the Apollo Moon Mission, these pocket-sized powerhouses have become an invaluable tool for managing our health and are even able to do on-the-spot diagnostic tests that were previously only able to be performed in a lab.
This shift to in-home testing is the wave of the future, promising to ease some of the medical care bottlenecks in which patients can have two- to three-week waits to see their family doctors and lift some of the burdens on overworked physicians.
"This is really the democratization of medicine because a lot of the things we used to rely on doctors, hospitals, or labs to do we'll be able to do ourselves," says Dr. Eric Topol, an eminent cardiologist and digital health pioneer at the Scripps Clinic and Research Institute in La Jolla.
But troubling questions remain. Aside from the obvious convenience, are these tests truly as accurate as ones in a doctor's office? And with all this medical information stored and collected by smartphones, will privacy be sacrificed? Will friends, family members, and employers suddenly have access to personal medical information we'd rather keep to ourselves?
The range of what these DIY health care apps can do is mind-boggling, and even more complex tests are on the way.
"I'm really worried about that because we've let our guard down," says Topol. "Data stored on servers is a target for cyber thieves — and data is being breached, hacked, brokered, and sold, and we're complacent."
Still, the apps have come a long way since 2011 when Topol whipped out an experimental smartphone electro-cardiogram that he had been testing on his patients when a fellow passenger on a flight from Washington D.C. was seized with severe chest pains. At 35,000 feet in the air, the app, which uses fingertip sensors to detect heart rate, showed the man was having a heart attack. After an emergency landing, the passenger was rushed to the closest hospital and survived. These days, even the Apple Watch has an FDA-approved app that can monitor your electro-cardiogram readings.
The range of what these DIY health care apps can do is mind-boggling, and even more complex tests are on the way. Phone apps can now monitor sleep quality to detect sleep apnea, blood pressure, weight and temperature. In the future, rapid diagnostic tests for infectious diseases, like flu, Dengue or Zika, and urinalysis will become common.
"There is virtually no limit to the kinds of testing that can be done using a smartphone," says Dr. John Halamka, Executive Director of the Health Technology Exploration Center at Beth Israel Lahey Health. "No one wants to drive to a clinician's office or lab if that same quality testing can be achieved at a lower cost without leaving home."
SkinVision's skin cancer screening tool, for instance, can tell if a suspicious mole is cancerous. Users take three photos, which are then run through the app's algorithm that compares their lesions with more than three million pictures, evaluating such elements as asymmetry, color, and shape, and spits out an assessment within thirty seconds. A team of in-house experts provide a review regardless of whether the mole is high or low risk, and the app encourages users to see their doctors. The Dutch-based company's app has been used by more than a million people globally in the EU, and in New Zealand and Australia, where skin cancer is rampant and early detection can save lives. The company has plans to enter the U.S. market, according to a spokesperson.
Apps like Instant Heart Rate analyze blood flow, which can indicate whether your heart is functioning normally, while uChek examines urine samples for up to 10 markers for conditions like diabetes and urinary tract infections. Some behavioral apps even have sensors that can spot suicide risks if users are less active, indicating they may be suffering from a bout of the blues.
Even more complex tests are in the research pipeline. Apps like ResAppDX could eventually replace x-rays, CT scans, and blood tests in diagnosing severe respiratory infections in kids, while an EU-funded project called i-Prognosis can track a variety of clues — voice changes, facial expressions, hand steadiness — that indicate the onset of Parkinson's disease.
These hand-held testing devices can be especially helpful in developing countries, and there are pilot programs to use smartphone technology to diagnose malaria and HIV infections in remote outposts in Africa.
"In a lot of these places, there's no infrastructure but everyone has a smartphone," says Scanwell's Koh. "We need to leverage the smartphone in a clinically relevant way."
"Patients just blindly accept the end user agreements without understanding the implications."
Users need to be vigilant, too. "Patients just blindly accept the end user agreements without understanding the implications," says Hamalka, who is also the Chief Information Officer and Dean for Technology at Harvard Medical School.
And quality control is an issue. Right now, the diagnostic tools currently available have been vetted by the FDA, and overseas companies like Skin Vision have been scrutinized by the U.K.'s National Health Service and the EU. But the danger is that a lot of apps are going to be popping up soon that haven't been properly tested, due to loopholes in the regulations.
"All we want," says Topol, "are rigorous studies to make sure what consumers are using is validated."
[Correction, August 19th, 2019: An earlier version of this story misstated the specifics of SkinVision's service. A team of in-house experts reviews users' submissions, not in-house dermatologists, and the service is not free.]
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”