The United States leads the world in total health care expenditures per capita, and President Obama’s Affordable Health Care for America Act aims to change that. One of the many proposed initiatives focuses on bringing down the cost of medical equipment. Is it possible for developers to find creative ways to supplant an expensive medical device with an app?

Doctors are already using smartphones on the job

It should come as no surprise that 80% of doctors use a mobile device at work. The only question is, how are they using them? A study by market research firm Kalorama shows that 50% of doctors are using devices for “everyday treatment activity.” Many of those tasks are ones which would’ve previously been done on a computer — like data management, scheduling and referencing — but it’s a step in the right direction.

In addition to common smartphone uses, more specialized apps have already been developed for doctors. The AliveCor Heart Monitor is a hardware/app combo that turns smartphones into a portable electrocardiogram (ECG) machine. The app records and stores ECG readings on, where patients and doctors can safely access the information at anytime.

On the other side of the world, doctors in Australia are at the forefront of using smartphone apps to measure vital signs and review medical information. Western Australia’s Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, a leading teaching institute, is breaking down the barrier between PCs and mobile devices by providing medical professionals with an extensive list of smartphone apps they can use in the field. The hospital’s mobile library includes numerous digitized guides to aid in diagnosis, as well as handy apps like MedCal Pro, a medical calculator that provides quick access to complicated medical formulas, scores, scales and classifications.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Over in developing countries, such as those in Africa, the need for cheaper medical devices is pushing innovation. One smartphone augment that’s trying to meet this need is Uchek, an app/add-on that’s used to analyze urine samples, checking for 25 different health conditions and the presence of 10 elements. According to Ucheck creator, Myshkin Ingawale, this inexpensive piece of equipment can save hospitals thousands of dollars by using a $100 phone instead of a $1,000 machine.

Mobile health care has the potential to save millions of lives in these countries within just the next five years, according to GSMA Chief Marketing Officer, Michael O’Hara. “Mobile health has immense potential to improve people’s lives since it increases patient access to quality health care whilst reducing costs,” he explained.

Why manufacturers (and doctors) should be worried

Mobile devices are finally making the medical industry follow the rule of technology. From computers to tablets, innovations tend to get cheaper as newer versions hit the shelves. That hasn’t been the case with most medical equipment, until now. When comparing the price tag of Uchek vs. a Roche Diagnostics Urisys 1100 Urine Analyzer, which sells for over $1,000, it’s easy to see why medical equipment manufacturers are a little worried.

Doctors may also have reason to be nervous. Some developers are bound and determined to reduce the need for office visits with easy-to-interpret devices like the Scanadu Scout. When placed against your temple, this palm-sized scanner reads vitals faster than you can flip through a dated magazine in the waiting room. And if you’d like a second opinion, you can always email the results to your doctor for a more human interpretation.

The processing power of today’s mobile devices makes it possible for independent developers to create competitive technology without the hefty financial investment previously required in medical R&D. Sure, Uchek may not have all the bells and whistles of a full-blown urine analyzer at the moment, but as more developers follow Uchek’s business model, there should be a significant increase in medical apps and a welcomed drop in medical costs.