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The dream of the medical tricorder

Medical technology: The hand-held diagnostic devices seen on “Star Trek” are inspiring a host of medical add-ons for smartphones
Dec 1st 2012 | from the print edition

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.

Among the organisations pushing for the development of a medical tricorder is the X Prize Foundation, an organisation that aims to spur innovation by offering cash prizes. Earlier this year it announced the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, financed by the Qualcomm Foundation, the charitable arm of Qualcomm, a maker of wireless communications technologies. It has put up $10m in prize money and another $10m to pay for the administration of the competition. So far more than 230 teams from over 30 countries have applied to enter the contest, the guidelines for which will be finalised this month. The goal is to create a mobile platform that will enable people to diagnose a set of 15 conditions, including diseases as varied as pneumonia, diabetes and sleep apnoea, without having to rely on a doctor or nurse. “Ultimately this is about democratising access to health care around the world,” says Peter Diamandis, the head of the X Prize Foundation.

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.

Read more: Medical tricorders: The dream of the medical tricorder | The Economist.

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