A Medical Lab in Your Smartphone

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A new app is "trying to democratize healthcare" -- in this case, through urinalysis.

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uChek

The digital age has made what was was once obscure visible. In ways we never could before, we can quantify the world -- make it knowable to us, comprehensible to us -- by gathering data and identifying patterns and generally converting experience into information.

One of the last things to have its outlined sharpened through data's lens, though, has been the object most intimate to us: our own bodies. For that understanding, we tend to rely on the same sources of expertise that previous generations of humans did: medical professionals. We may turn to websites like WebMD, out of curiosity or genuine health concerns or hypochondriacal tendencies, to diagnose our minor ailments; we may log our diets through MyNetDiary or our workouts through FitBit; we may track our sleep patterns with products like WakeMate. But while sites and apps have been very good at tracking our health-related behavior, they have been significantly less good at tracking our health itself. Our bodies remain, for the most part, mysteries. Mysteries that are solved, for the most part, only by occasional trips to the doctor.

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But that's changing. Medical practice, while still largely undertaken in hospitals and doctors' offices, is expanding out into patients' day-to-day lives. A world already familiar with home pregnancy tests and home blood glucose tests and even home AIDS tests now has another home-based diagnostic product to make use of: an at-home urinalysis system. At the TED conference in Long Beach this week, former MIT student and current entrepreneur Myshkin Ingawale introduced uChek, which is, as its name (sort of) hints at, a urine-testing app.

Yep: Urinalysis -- there's an app for that.

And, no, the app does not require you to pee on your smartphone. It does, however, require you to pee into a cup with a chemical strip attached to it. The app, Wired explains, then analyzes those strips "by first taking photos with your phone at predetermined times and comparing the results that appear on the pee-soaked strip to a color-coded map."

The app then offers a breakdown of the elements present in the user's urine, comparing levels of things like glucose, ketones, leukocytes, nitrites, and proteins -- much like a urine test conducted at a medical lab would do, only without the trip to the lab. The app then presents the results to the user, offering visual breakdowns that indicate normal versus abnormal levels of each compound. (It also offers more detailed info on each compound so you can see more about, say, what ketones are and what high levels of them mean to your health.) 

The specific idea of the app isn't to write doctors and other professionals out of the equation; it makes a point of its ability to provide doctors with more detailed information for them to analyze. The app does, however, aim to help those with diabetes -- or with kidney, bladder, or liver problems -- to manage their diseases on a day-to-day basis. (It might also offer some evidence of things like urinary tract infections.) The broader point, though, is to empower people as patients -- to acquaint them them with their bodies' rhythms, to familiarize them with the workings of their own atoms and bits. "The idea is to get people closer to their own information," Ingawale put it. "I want people to better understand what is going on with their bodies."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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