Startrek inspires the Health Tech industry

The dream of the medical tricorder

When aliens seize and torture Dr McCoy in The Empath, an episode of the science-fiction series Star Trek, Captain Kirk and Mr Spock rush to his aid. They are able to assess his condition in seconds with the help of a medical tricorder—a hand-held computer with a detachable sensor that is normally used by Dr McCoy himself to diagnose others. A quick scan with the tricorder indicates that he suffers from “severe heart damage; signs of congestion in both lungs; evidence of massive circulatory collapse”.

Along with teleportation, speech-driven computers and hand-held wireless communicators that flip open, the medical tricorder was one of many imaginary future technologies featured in Star Trek. Ever since, researchers have dreamed of developing a hand-held medical scanner that can take readings from a patient and then diagnose various conditions. Now, nearly five decades after Star Trek made its debut in 1966, the dream is finally edging closer to reality.

But the obstacles to building a medical tricorder are not merely technological. Regulatory agencies such as America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may delay or restrict consumers from getting their hands on such devices, and the medical establishment, infamous for its inertia, may be wary of granting patients a more active role in diagnosis. Many doctors do not believe that patients can be trusted with their own medical data and are reluctant to give them access to it, explains Eric Topol, a cardiologist and the author of “The Creative Destruction of Medicine”. He believes the push to adopt new digital technologies in health care will have to come not from doctors but from the public.

Making self-service diagnostic technology cheaper and more widely available would, however, have enormous benefits in both rich and poor parts of the world. The Association of American Medical Colleges projects that America could have 90,000 doctors fewer than it needs by 2020, as doctors retire, the population ages and chronic illnesses become more prevalent. All this will place huge demands on America’s sprawling health-care system, and threatens to increase health-related spending still further. Other rich countries are also looking for ways to keep a lid on rising health-care expenditure.

In developing countries, meanwhile, large numbers of people live in rural areas far away from hospitals and medical centres, reducing access to diagnosis and treatment. There are also far fewer doctors per capita: around two doctors per 10,000 people in Africa as a whole in 2010, compared with 33 in Europe. “No country in the world is producing enough doctors and nurses to satisfy their current or future demands for health care,” says Christopher Wasden, an expert in health-care strategy and innovation at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a consultancy. “Unless we have consumers doing more of this themselves, it’s impossible to deliver care to those people who need it.”

The prospects for creating a medical tricorder have been boosted enormously by the spread of mobile phones. There are now more than 6 billion in use around the world, of which around 1 billion are smartphones—in effect, powerful, internet-capable pocket computers.

Even without any additional hardware or software, a phone can be a useful medical device. Some health-care organisations already send out text messages to patients’ mobile phones, for example, reminding them to take their medicine, renew their prescriptions or visit a doctor. Add some extra software in the form of downloadable apps, and the cameras and video recorders built into more advanced handsets can be used as sensors to measure or track vital signs, such as heart and respiration rates. Add hardware in the form of sensors that plug into the phone or connect to it wirelessly, and a phone can become an even more powerful tool for monitoring and diagnosis.

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Source: The Economist