Remember in the old Star Trek episodes where the doctor scanned a medical tricorder onto a patient? It instantaneously produced a diagnosis with a push of a button. What if I told you that this could become a reality within the next year?
In 2012, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize competition was announced, where $10 million in prizes would be awarded to the winner who could successfully develop a medical tricorder. Already, 10 finalists have been selected, with a winner to be announced later in 2015. The tricorders in development can diagnose a range of ailments from diabetes to tuberculosis to hypertension. They are all required at minimum to measure blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, and temperature.
Many of these and other health measurements are already available through wearable devices like an activity tracker, wrist-worn pre-seizure detector, or a heart monitor app. There’s even a button on the heart monitor app where you can upload your electrocardiogram (ECG) report and have it read by a cardiologist within minutes.
There are also devices that can run lab work in the palm of your hand using lab-on-a-chip technology. They can take a small sample of bodily fluid to run tests quickly and on-the-spot. A diabetic person could wear a disposable tattoo that could constantly measure blood sugar levels and eliminate finger-prick tests. Or, you can check if your child has a urinary tract infection by doing a quick urinalysis test and submitting the info to an app.
There is continual research to find ways to make lab work cheaper and more efficient. They can now take one drop of blood and run 30 different tests at once. It won’t be long before they can run hundreds of tests using just a single drop of blood. As we move to a digital doctor’s bag, we will digitize many of the diagnostic tools used in medicine.
So, why have a bunch of single-purpose devices? The beauty of the tricorder is that it seeks to combine many of these sensor technologies with artificial intelligence to help you make better health decisions. You can take charge of your health!
IBM’s Watson may become the artificial intelligence behind tricorders. Watson has already proved to be smarter than humans on the Jeopardy game show. Now researchers are trying to apply Watson’s self-learning algorithms towards medical knowledge. As it stands, medical information doubles every 3 years. And by 2020, it may double every 73 days. No researcher or doctor can keep up with all of this information. Using a patient’s DNA, Watson could search through thousands of trials and recommend a treatment option that would best match the patient’s profile.
So, how might we use these tricorders? Imagine if you can use this device to cut down on the time you spend at doctor’s office? Already, we spend countless hours obtaining diagnostic measures. What if these metrics could be taken by a tricorder in the comfort of your home and then submitted wirelessly to your health care provider? You may then opt to have a teleconference appointment so your doctor could ask some follow-up questions or prescribe some medicine.
The tricorder could also sift out the mild conditions versus serious illnesses and recommend whether a visit to the doctor is even necessary. However, a tricorder won’t completely replace your doctor. It can’t heal a broken leg—at least not yet! But, it could direct you to the closest urgent care facility will the shortest wait times. Maybe it could provide some advice on how to reduce the swelling or properly splint your leg until you could see a professional. Tricorders could potentially relieve the caseload of our already stressed out health care system.
Tricorders also have the potential to address some global health issues. 1st world health care problems are quite different from 3rd world ones. For example, Nigeria needs 700,000 more doctors by 2030 to support the needs of their population. That is 12 times the number of doctors they have today. There’s only so many doctors that Doctors Without Borders can provide. Without the medical infrastructure to address the needs of their people, they need better, cheaper solutions…quickly. A tricorder may be a step towards the solution.