Smartphones, social media and crowdsourcing all have the potential to help people get faster, better treatment for heart attacks and strokes, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Because they're so widely available, these tools might be able to address some of the biggest challenges in emergency cardiac care, like patients' failure to recognize symptoms and bystanders' inability to help at the scene, the AHA said in a scientific statement published in Circulation.
"Stroke and heart attack are time-critical - outcomes are directly related in many cases to how quickly a patient's symptoms were recognized and addressed," said coauthor Dr. Raina Merchant, of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
Digital tools can reduce the time it takes to get therapy started, Merchant added by email.
While a lot of new technology remains untested in large clinical trials, there's a lot of potential to help improve the speed and quality of care.
One study in Sweden, for example, tested a mobile application to alert volunteers within 500 meters (547 yards) of a cardiac arrest victim to respond and start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The study found 62 percent of volunteers with this app started CPR, compared with less than half of bystanders who didn't have the app.
Another study in Japan found that when emergency personnel wanted doctors to see pictures of electrocardiogram results, which show whether the heart is working properly, sending the pictures by smartphones was 1.5 minutes faster than sending them by fax.
Little research has been done to investigate how digital tools can help with stroke treatment, though, and most of the studies involving heart attacks have yet to show which tools may be the most effective, the AHA statement authors note.
Additional research might help answer questions like whether mobile devices could be converted into defibrillators or whether video sharing platforms might assist bystanders with CPR.
More studies are also needed to investigate the potential downsides of digital interventions such as the potential for patient privacy violations or the possibility that people might get inaccurate information that leads to medical errors.
The biggest potential for mobile tools may come because so many people now have smartphones with them everywhere they go, said Dr. Timothy Plante, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who wasn't involved in the AHA statement.
"Since it seems nearly everyone has a phone on them nowadays, it's rare that someone would have to run off to use a landline and leave someone clinically unstable alone," Plante said by email.
"At the very least, a cell in every hand has helped bystanders activate emergency medical services more rapidly," Plante added. "The current technology is pretty remarkable and what's on the horizon holds even more promise to improve outcomes for heart attack and stroke."