Technology | DOI: 10.1145/2492007.2492014
Patient, heal thyself
New handheld medical diagnostic tools promise more efficient,
lower-cost healthcare—but at what price?
When Walter De Brou- Wer’s five-year-old son suffered a brain injury after falling from a 36-foot-high window
in 2005, the Belgian inventor and his
wife spent 10 long weeks in the intensive care unit, waiting helplessly while
the doctors and nurses pored over a bewildering array of medical data.
“It was frustrating to feel so in the
dark,” de Brouwer recalls. As the days
dragged on, he spent more and more
time poring over the data, slowly mastering the arcana of vital signs and
medical record-keeping as he tried
to make sense of his son’s condition.
Along the way, he began cultivating
a new product idea: an easy-to-use
handheld device that would allow patients to gather and interpret their
own vital signs.
In 2011, de Brouwer launched
Scanadu, a software company whose
flagship product, Scout, captures five
critical vital signs via a small sensing
device about the size of a mouse, then
transmits that data via Bluetooth to a
smartphone equipped with a special
diagnostic app. Backed by technology
luminaries like Stephen Wolfram and
Nicholas Negroponte, the company
seems well-poised to bring medical data-gathering to the masses within the
next few years.
Scanadu is scarcely alone. In recent
years, a slew of new companies have
emerged with new handheld medical
data-gathering devices: from the popular Fitbit to smartphone-enabled ultrasound machines, portable glucose
monitors, and even handheld electrocardiogram devices.
In a widely read column in Tech-
Crunch last year, former Sun Micro-
systems CEO and influential venture
capitalist Vinod Khosla predicted the
emergence of what he called “Dr. Algo-
rithm,” a system capable of gathering
patient data from an array of handheld
devices and querying a vast storehouse
of connected patient data and medical
literature to diagnose common medi-
cal conditions. “Eventually, we won’t
need the average doctor and will have
much better and cheaper care for 90 to
99 percent of our medical needs,” he
in January 2012,
the X Prize
a new $10-million
award for the
creation of a
McCoy-worthy device capable of diagnosing 15 common diseases like diabetes, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.
The prize’s senior director, Mark
Winter, feels the time is right to bring
Star Trek-level diagnostic tools to the
market. “We’re seeing a remarkable
convergence of different technologies to solve big, complex problems,”
he says. Specifically, he points to the
growing availability of sophisticated
wireless sensors, along with the rapid
acceleration of smartphone processors, as the key technological underpinnings that could make the medical
tricorder a reality.
Dr. Scott Jansen recently worked on
one of the X PRIZE teams, building on
his earlier work in creating an open
source “science tricorder.” Although
he is no longer actively involved with
the medical team, he feels confident
that the time is ripe for such a device.
“Five years ago, it was difficult to
find sensors that would fit into a handheld device,” he says, and those that
he could find often drained power resources and gave off poor signals.
Today, that situation has changed
dramatically. Sensors are getting
smaller—meaning more of them can
fit in a small device—and, more importantly, they are getting cheaper.
Modern sensors are power efficient as
well, often featuring onboard analog-to-digital converters to boost their signal quality.
The availability of high-quality off-the-shelf sensors—like spectrometers
or high-energy particle detectors—has
dramatically changed the engineering
“While integrating a broad array of
sensing modalities into a single device
can be challenging, having manufacturers develop single-chip smart sensing products really reduces months of
engineering work down to a few hours
of integration,” says Dr. Jansen.
A Redmond, WA-based start-up