How Smartphones Can Make Health Monitoring More Accessible

Check your heart rate and respiration

Key Takeaways

  • Google is rolling out a new feature for its Pixel line that lets you monitor your respiration and heart rate using the phone’s camera. 
  • The measurements aren’t meant for medical diagnosis or to evaluate medical conditions, but only for wellness. 
  • The new Pixel features are part of a growing number of health features integrated into smartphones and smartwatches.
Someone doing yoga and looking at a smartphone.
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Google’s new health features use the cameras in Pixel phones to monitor respiration and heart rate. 

With the new update, the front-facing camera takes respiration measurements by watching for small movements in the head and chest. The phone watches for color changes from blood flow when you put your finger over the rear camera to monitor your pulse. The technology makes monitoring your health more accessible, experts say. 

"This type of technology replaces the outdated 100-plus-year-old traditional blood pressure cuff with a smartphone app that empowers people worldwide with instantaneous blood pressure measurement," Eliott Jones, CEO and co-founder of Biospectal, a remote patient monitoring and biosensing software company, said in an email interview.

"The monitoring integrates directly into the ubiquitous device they already carry everywhere."

Monitoring By Camera

Google’s new health app is meant to be simple to use. To measure respiratory rate, you just need to place your head and upper torso in view of your phone’s front-facing camera and breathe normally.

In order to measure your heart rate, all you need to do is place your finger on the rear-facing camera lens. 

Someone measuring their heart rate on a smartphone.
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"Thanks to increasingly powerful sensors and advances in computer vision, these features let you use your smartphone’s camera to track tiny physical signals at the pixel level—like chest movements to measure your respiratory rate and subtle changes in the color of your fingers for your heart rate," Shwetak Patel, the director of health technologies at Google Health, writes on the company’s blog

The measurements aren’t meant for medical diagnosis or to evaluate medical conditions, but only for wellness, Patel said. The measurements can be saved in the app to monitor trends over time.

Growing Number of Health Apps

The new Pixel features are part of a growing number of health capabilities that are being integrated into smartphones and smartwatches. Of course, Apple’s Watch app allows users to monitor their heart rate. The Apple Watch 6 also can be used to monitor blood oxygen levels. 

Binah.ai's software also can monitor vital signs just by using a smartphone, tablet, or laptop camera. By looking at the device’s camera, users can extract heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiration rate, heart rate variability, and mental stress levels—all in under 1 minute.  

"Binah.ai’s technology applies a unique mix of artificial technologies to analyze a video stream taken from the upper cheek area of a person’s face and identify a change in the light reflection on a person’s skin, detecting a heartbeat,” David Maman, the co-founder, CEO, and chief technology officer of Binah.ai, said in an email interview. 

“While other technologies require contact with a person’s body, Binah.ai’s technology is contactless, compensates for movements, and is compatible with the small thing in everyone’s pocket—their smartphone,” he added. 

Someone holding a smartphone and looking at a fitness tracker on their wrist.
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Biospectal recently announced the public beta of software that allows quick blood pressure measurement and monitoring using the Android smartphone’s built-in camera to record and measure a user’s blood flow via their fingertip.

"Avoiding the need for devices like wearables, wristbands, or other extra hardware to provide diagnostic measurements is a huge benefit for user experience and convenience of consumer access to health monitoring," Jones said. 

There's also FibriCheck, which allows you to monitor your heart rhythms using an app. The app, which can be integrated into any smartwatch brand, detects episodes of both intermittent and silent atrial fibrillation (AF), where symptoms are only felt on and off or not at all, making diagnosis difficult.

Google’s approach is part of a broader trend of making health and wellness data more accessible to smartphone users, experts say. 

“Just about anyone can learn to check their pulse and respiration, but Google’s new phone feature makes monitoring easier and more convenient,” Melanie Musson, a wellness expert with life insurance comparison site LifeInsuranceTypes.com, said in an email interview. “The more often you check your pulse, the more you’ll understand your normal fluctuations.”

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