'Star Trek’ tricorder becomes reality (and other healthcare innovations)

November 27, 2018

While story-based tech innovation doesn’t always pan out, it sometimes does-and it usually changes everything.

Editor's Note: Welcome to Medical Economics' blog section which features contributions from members of the medical community. These blogs are an opportunity for bloggers to engage with readers about a topic that is top of mind, whether it is practice management, experiences with patients, the industry, medicine in general, or healthcare reform. The opinions expressed here are that of the authors and not UBM / Medical Economics.

When given enough time, science fiction sometimes becomes science fact. Only a few decades ago, artificial intelligence (AI) was nothing more than a concept in forward-thinking sci-fi novels. While story-based tech innovation doesn’t always pan out (most of us are still waiting for functional hover boards and flying cars), it sometimes does-and it usually changes everything.

That’s why, for the past 10 years, Qualcomm has sponsored the $2.5 million XPrize to bring the "Star Trek" medical tricorder to life. The winner, Final Frontier Medical Devices (now Basil Leaf Technologies), exhibited a working, AI-driven prototype named DxtER that may finally make the tricorder a reality-and help change everything we knew about healthcare’s future.

How the DxtER tricorder works

The tricorder from the popular TV and movie series "Star Trek" was a multi-function device that could scan and analyze anything. The handheld scanner could tell its user what elements were in an alien environment, the DNA structures of alien species and much more. It could also be used to scan medical patients and provide immediate, comprehensive diagnoses of any condition or disease.

The idea of an all-around instant scanner is exciting, but the medical applications are what the AI-driven tricorder prototype, DxtER, has proven possible. It’s a combination of smart tools, including a digital stethoscope, wrist sensor, chest sensor, spirometer and blood pressure calibrator, that feeds an AI program data to provide accurate diagnoses.

The program fits onto an iPad mini or any current smartphone or tablet, and the sensors use technology similar to that of glucose readers that don’t draw blood. It could be convenient enough for patients to use at home and can diagnose up to 34 medical conditions, including anemia, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, hypertension, asthma and bronchitis.

A disruptive future for healthcare

Innovations like the tricorder don’t come around often because it takes a culmination of advanced technologies to make them possible. Together, the technologies that have led us to this point paint a much more disruptive picture of healthcare’s future than we ever imagined. For example, these three technologies create a more comprehensive patient experience:

1. Portable diagnostic devices

The fact that the tricorder stems from one of the most popular sci-fi sagas of all time is fascinating, but the real-world implications of portable diagnostic devices are even more impressive. Patients can avoid unnecessary hospital visits by analyzing their symptoms or virtually sending detailed data to their healthcare teams in real time. Portable hardware and AI-powered software that fits on most consumer devices give patients significant power over their healthcare choices.

Doctors can also expand their services without financially burdening their organizations. In a hospital setting, a handheld scanner may not provide the precise details needed to form a treatment plan, but it can help providers save time and lives by more quickly pinpointing what tests are necessary and what treatment options are most appropriate.

2. AI-powered medical assistants

The crux of the tricorder’s value is that it provides physicians and patients with vital healthcare data almost instantly. That’s the same idea that makes AI-powered medical assistants valuable. Smart chatbots can answer important questions that patients would normally ask their doctors. If patients experience unexpected symptoms or have questions about their conditions, they can engage with a chatbot instead of inundating their physicians with questions.

Unlike the bots that consumers frequently encounter (and become frustrated with) when dealing with retail companies, medical chatbots learn from the expertise of various providers and experiences with patients. They can guide patients to identify and understand their needs without taking time from human customer support teams or healthcare personnel.

3. Virtual hospital visitors

Chatting with an intelligent, almost humanlike bot can vastly improve patient interaction, but for patients who are hospitalized, virtual reality (VR) can be a much more engaging option. Organizations are already using VR to help patients through chronic pain management, therapy for neurological disorders, traumatic brain injuries and long hospital stays.

For instance, VR applications that generate virtual, interactive characters help spur social interaction for children with autism. Patients confined to a hospital bed benefit from being able to virtually interact with family and friends as though they were at home. The application takes their mind out of the four walls of the hospital so they can relax and recover more successfully.

A look ahead

The rise in AI, machine learning and VR will likely force healthcare to evolve in ways that we haven’t thought of yet. While exciting, that prospect also raises important questions that should guide how we implement the technologies. Elon Musk, who co-founded a research group to look into the ethics of AI, has warned that it’s never too early to make sure this advanced technology “benefits all of humanity.”

Providers must ask certain questions-and ask them relentlessly. Will one-off or infrequent biases contribute to algorithms (i.e., the way the tool "thinks")? Healthcare is both science and ethics; will these AI-driven tools be able to recognize and accommodate for such a nuanced balance? These are the questions any organization in any field has to ask, but they become even more imperative when it's patients' well-being on the line.

Technologies like the tricorder should, however, benefit us overall. In sci-fi stories, technology often plays vital roles in society, for better or worse. When turning that technology into real life, such as the tricorder, we can make sure it’s mostly better by focusing on how it can vastly improve healthcare outcomes and the overall patient experience. As with any new technology, so long as we keep a patient-first mindset, we (and those we care for) will quickly be able to reap the benefits.

Jeff Heenan-Jalil is the senior vice president and global head of Health Business for Wipro LimitedOutside of Wipro, he is a board member of Digital Square, an organization that aims to empower countries to develop sustainable national digital infrastructures. The views expressed in this article are Jeff's, and his employer does not subscribe to the substance or veracity of Jeff's views.