Hip app gathers data as you walk

Data captured on cellphone in hip pocket can help monitor some medical conditions

How fast or how far you walk, or even the length of your stride, could soon be measured just by slipping a mobile phone into your trouser pocket.

Singapore-based health analytics start-up Healint has developed a mobile application that measures a person's gait using sensors already embedded within the phone.

It could offer a more convenient method to monitor, in the long term, patients with conditions such as Parkinson's disease, stroke and spinal stenosis - a narrowing of the spinal canal - where their ability to walk is affected, said Ms Veronica Chew, the company's co-founder.

Doctors generally use verbal assessments to do this - they ask patients how long they are able to walk before having to stop; or do a walk test using a pedometer - an instrument to record the number of steps taken - and a timer.

That requires patients to make a trip to the clinic, said Associate Professor Yeo Tseng Tsai, head of the Division of Neurosurgery at the National University Hospital.

"But everybody puts the cellphone in their pockets nowadays so we thought this could be a handy thing to see how their walking improves," said Prof Yeo, who is looking at doing future studies on the application.

In a pilot study conducted with Khoo Teck Puat Hospital late last year, the "Walk Buddy" application was used to track the walking patterns of 10 patients suffering from varying degrees of back pain caused by spinal stenosis.

Participants were asked to walk back and forth on a 20m walkway for three minutes.

The study found that the application could identify the characteristics of their walk, such as their balance and the way their feet made contact with the ground, on top of determining the number of steps and distance walked, their speed and the number of pauses taken.

The study was presented at the Asean Neuroscience congress in July and will be published in the Journal Of Mobile Technology In Medicine this month.

With enough data, the team behind the application hopes to create a scale system that will group patients into categories based on their walking abilities, before and after surgery.

This could potentially be used to predict if a patient is likely to respond well to surgery, said Ms Chew.

The team plans to test the application on patients with other conditions which affect their walking, and will be applying for a grant to conduct studies on a larger scale involving some 100 patients.

"It's still in the early stages, but we think that based on the differences we see pre- and post-surgery, it could be clinically useful," said Prof Yeo. "Ultimately, we want to be able to monitor patients over 24 hours so we can get an average, which would be more accurate than current standard tests."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2015, with the headline 'Hip app gathers data as you walk'. Print Edition | Subscribe