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Finnish mobile apps help prevent strokes and heart attacks

University of Turku researchers have developed mobile apps for detecting heart attacks and early signs of a stroke. The tests can be done in a few minutes by placing a smartphone on the patient’s chest.istock.com/Spauln

Nowadays you can find a mobile app for almost anything and some of them can even save your life. Now Finnish researchers have made it possible to use your phone to detect a heart attack or early signs of a stroke.

Cardiovascular diseases are the most common cause of death globally, killing over 17 million people per year. Early detection saves lives but often the first symptoms of a heart attack are confused with heartburn or transient chest pain, something University of Turku researchers think they can solve. Their new mobile app can spot the warning signs early and alert its users.

“Smartphones have very sensitive built-in motion sensors, accelerometers and gyroscopes, that measure the phone’s movement,” explains Tero Koivisto, project manager at Turku University’s Technology Research Center (TRC). “Our app uses these same sensors to measure micro-movements caused by heart beats instead.”

In practice this means if you are feeling unwell you simply open the app, place the phone on your chest and the app does the rest. It uses a proprietary machine learning algorithm to analyse any signs of a heart attack and within a few minutes, if cause for concern is found, encourages the patient to seek medical advice.

In TRC’s studies the app detected heart attack related problems accurately over 70 per cent of the time and the researchers believe over 90 per cent accuracy can be achieved if the app has previously recorded the patient’s baseline data.

Life-saving research

TRC’s research team has studied the use of sensor technology for measuring heart movements in close collaboration with the Turku University Hospital since 2011. Mobile apps are only one, but a significant part of this.

“These are multidisciplinary projects where you need to combine for instance medical, electronics, algorithm and software expertise,” Koivisto says. “A mobile app may sound like it is fast to do, but behind it is a lot of research.”

In August the team used the same smartphone sensor technology to announce an app for detecting atrial fibrillation, a major cause of brain strokes. 70 per cent of these could be avoided with pre-emptive medication, but the challenge is atrial fibrillation often has very little, if any, noticeable symptoms.

TRC’s mobile app tackles this by detecting unusual heart rhythm without any extra equipment or expensive medical devices. The test can be done anywhere by placing the phone on the user’s chest and results are ready just as quickly as the heart data.

“This is a highly cost-effective and easy way to detect atrial fibrillation,” explains Koivisto. “The method can also be used for screening large populations as there are over two billion smartphone users in the world. In future, a secure cloud service could be created to store and analyse larger masses of data.”

Due process and business potential

But getting TRC’s mobile apps to the public is no easy matter given the serious health conditions they address:

“All the necessary permit processes cannot happen inside a few months,” explains Koivisto. “Our aim is to have the apps on the market in a year’s time.”

With this timescale in mind the research team knows its next steps. Negotiations have already begun with potential investors and the hope is to spin-off a commercial company in 2017.

“Commercialisation has always been a central goal in TRC’s operations,” Koivisto says. “We want to focus on research topics that are significant on a societal level and new on a global scale.”

TRC’s mobile apps uses a smartphone’s built-in motion sensors which means they are cheap, easy to use anywhere and no extra equipment is needed. Image: TRC
By: Eeva Haaramo