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Calling Dr. Algorithm

Richard Adler | Oct. 15, 2014
Technology is poised to make big changes in the delivery of healthcare.

medical technology
Credit: André Lira, via Pixabay

Imagine that almost every household had an inexpensive, easy-to-use, handheld gadget capable of automatically measuring key vital signs (blood pressure, blood oxygen level, heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature) as well as accurately diagnosing more than a dozen serious illnesses (including anemia, diabetes, hepatitis A, pneumonia, tuberculosis and stroke). This device would also be able to instantly share the information it collects with professional caregivers when appropriate.

Sounds like science fiction? In fact, the inspiration for this device is science fiction: the "tricorder" used by the 23rd-century members of the Enterprise crew on Star Trek.

But it looks like we may not have to wait a couple of centuries for the medical tricorder to be real. In 2011, the X Prize Foundation announced the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize, a $10 million competition to "stimulate innovation in creating precision diagnostic technologies [to help] consumers make their own reliable health diagnoses." Ten teams from six countries have been selected as finalists in the competition to develop a device that will accurately measure five vital signs and 13 health conditions (including those listed above). In late 2015, the finalists' entries will be tested with consumers, and the winner will be announced in January 2016. The federal Food and Drug Administration is participating in the competition to help speed the approval process that will be necessary before a working tricorder can be put on the market. If all goes well with the competition, a tricorder-like device might be on the market before the end of the decade.

Disrupting healthcare
The race to develop a working tricorder is just one small aspect of a much larger movement to integrate advanced technologies into the process of delivering healthcare. Although many other fields have been massively disrupted by new technology in the past several decades, healthcare has been relatively immune to change. Unfortunately, the U.S. healthcare system (despite claims that "it is the best in the world") has serious problems: Although U.S. per capita healthcare costs are the highest of any country in the world, the U.S. lags behind many other countries in terms of key health indicators like longevity and infant mortality.

But recently there have been some encouraging signs of progress. Rather than focusing on the treatment of specific diseases, these innovations are designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the delivery of care. To give a sense of what is going on today, let's look briefly at three areas: "mHealth" and remote patient monitoring; efforts to link doctors and patients electronically (known as "connected health"); and the application of advanced computing techniques to assist physicians and other providers with making complex medical decisions.


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