Can medical tricorders disrupt global healthcare?

When patients can measure their own body temperature, heart rate variability and oxygen saturation using a single device, doctors may morph into medical information analysts.
Written by Mari Silbey, Contributor

With only a few months left until the manufacturing deadline, the engineers and product managers at Scanadu are prepared to work nights and weekends to get the Scout medical tricorder out the door. CEO Walter de Brouwer laughingly promises that families can visit their hard-working relatives, and the company, located in Moffett Field, Calif., will have food brought in to keep up strength and morale.

But it's not office perks that are fueling the staff's enthusiasm at Scanadu. It's their mission to disrupt global healthcare.

The Scanadu Scout is a small sensor-loaded device designed to measure everything from body temperature to heart rate variability to blood oxygenation. It's scheduled to ship in March 2014, and the price for early investors ranges from $149 to $199 for the Scout hardware plus Scanadu's mobile app. When combined with smartphone apps, the Scout is meant to help individual consumers make medical decisions based on new data-driven insights.

"Everything we now know from genetics, what we do in life science," says de Brouwer, "in the end, everything, in my vision, will converge into the tricorder device."

In the short term, Scanadu plans to use the $1.67 million it raised in a recent Indiegogo campaign to support the many mundane activities required to get the Scout into commercial production. The company must negotiate the best price for each of the 106 unique components in the device and prepare carefully for its submission to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Once the Scout is deployed, however, that's when the interesting work begins.

"We have in our healthcare system, we have a clinical pathway," says de Brouwer. "So we know when we are sick what we have to do. ... Now what is the consumer pathway? What is you having a complete hospital in your phone, how do you ... navigate through that system? Which decisions are you going to take?"

De Brouwer wants to understand how people will behave once they have access to a steady stream of data about their medical health. When medical tricorders are widely available, which de Brouwer thinks will happen within the next five years, how will people respond both to their own individual information and to analysis of aggregated data?

For example, an individual with a high risk of heart disease could monitor others with a similar health profile and track their outcomes over time. When that opportunity is available, will it impact health and lifestyle choices? And how will it change how people interact with medical professionals?

De Brouwer is a scientist and futurist with a long list of credentials, and a wide range of interests. He founded Starlab in Belgium -- a lab focused on fields ranging from stem cell research to theoretical physics -- and today is a board member of NASA's Tau Zero Foundation, which is dedicated to the pursuit of interstellar travel.

As far as the medical industry is concerned, de Brouwer projects the Scout will take on a life of its own.

Scanadu is focused entirely on the consumer market, but the assumption is that once enough patients use smartphone apps and services regularly to track their own health statistics, the tricorder wave will carry over into the medical profession. And that could have a huge impact on health care.

"Now the biggest costs arrive when you [go] from [being] a consumer to a patient and back," says de Brouwer. "It should be a more continuous function."

De Brouwer means that healthcare costs should be more consistent over time. Today, they spike with every doctor visit, lab test and unexpected health crisis. But it doesn't have to be that way, he believes.

In the future, doctors may become more like "medical information analysts," according to de Brouwer. Individuals will collect and control their own data over time, while doctors will help make sense of it. This could change the nature of the doctor/patient relationship and create an entirely different financial model for the industry. In theory, it could also help regularize expenses and decrease spikes in healthcare spending.

Dr. Christopher Wasden of PricewaterHouseCoopers helps substantiate de Brouwer's theory with his study of the world's mobile health initiatives. In a presentation at a mobile health industry summit in 2012, Wasden suggested mHealth efforts could result in an 85 percent reduction in the overall cost of care.

The Scanadu Scout isn't the only medical tricorder currently under development. Qualcomm is sponsoring an XPRIZE competition that will give $10 million to the team of scientists that submits the most accurate tricorder device. Scanadu is participating in the contest, as are hundreds of other companies, groups and organizations.

Whether the Scanadu Scout specifically is successful or not, de Brouwer thinks medical tricorders, inspired by a gadget on the television show Star Trek, will inevitably force change on the healthcare industry. "When we watched Star Trek," he says, "unlike all the others, we did not see a TV series, we saw a business model."

For de Brouwer, it is the destiny of the baby boomer generation to leave behind a legacy of disruption in health care. If all goes according to plan, that legacy may start with the Scanadu Scout.

Images courtesy of Scanadu

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