Dr. Neal Sikka, an emergency room physician at George Washington University Medical Center, recalls an eye-opening incident that happened while he was away at a medical conference.
"My son fell and scraped his knee. My wife called, and I told her to take a picture and send it to me. She took a picture with her cell phone," said Sikka. "I looked at it, and told her how to clean it and take care of it."
Someone else Sikka knows once got paint in his eye. He called Sikka, who told him to send a picture of it.
"I was able to look at it and see the foreign body in his eye," said Sikka, who told the man what to do next.
Incidents like these spurred Sikka, who has worked extensively in the areas of telemedicine and remote medical provision, to undertake a six-month study assessing how accurately emergency medicine practitioners diagnose wounds based on photos taken by patients on their mobile phones.
The study involves people who arrive at George Washington University Medical Center's emergency room with non-life threatening flesh wounds. Once they are triaged, research assistants will determine whether they fit the study's criteria. Patients will then take pictures with their own cell phones, complete medical history questionnaires and e-mail the photos through a secure account.
A physician or physician assistant will then look at the photos and determine, based only on the photos, whether the patient needs stitches.
"The patient will then go back into the ER and when they're examined in person, we'll try to see how that diagnosis compares to the virtual diagnosis," said Sikka.
So far, about 100 people have participated in the study. Sikka said he hopes to enroll a total of somewhere between 250 and 500.
The researchers have only done a preliminary data analysis, but so far, Sikka said he's pleased with the results.
"The trends are really positive and the numbers are really encouraging," he said. "Doctors are really very accurate."
"This is something that most doctors use to help their families and friends," said Sikka.
"What we have had is a number of our residents or faculty using their cameras or cell phone cameras to take a picture and put it in the medical record to assess whether an injury is getting better or worse," said Dr. Corey Slovis, chair of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. "By having a visual, there's no longer a subjective judgment. It's an objective assessment based on the amount of swelling, redness and other characteristics."
It's especially helpful for wound care, doctors say.
"Sometimes a wound can be very dangerous, and you certainly may not want to wait to see a doctor," said Dr. Harold Brem, chief of the Division of Wound Healing & Regenerative Medicine in the Department of Surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York.
Brem has done research looking at how photos of wounds can impact healing.
"We established through a study that using photos of wounds can decrease amputations and prevent bed sores from progressing," he said.
Mobile technology also helps patients stay in better contact with doctors.
"Patients can be more continuously in touch with a provider," said Sikka.