Prize announced for making Star Trek medical technology reality

by Domenica Goduto

Doubtless many patients (and doctors) wish medical diagnosis were as simple as it is in Star Trek. In the classic science fiction series, a device called a tricorder was used to scan patients and immediately produce a diagnosis of whatever was wrong with them. It was quick, painless and uncomplicated – no waiting times, no further tests, no second opinions.

A new prize competition is now seeking to encourage the development of a gadget inspired by the Star Trek tricorder that will simplify medical diagnosis and help put healthcare in the hands of patients themselves. The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, which was announced Tuesday at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is valued at $10 million US (approximately £6.5 million) and is a joint offering from the X Prize Foundation and the Qualcomm Foundation.

The goal is to create a mobile platform that can correctly diagnose a set of 15 common diseases across 30 patients within 3 days, as well as recording and remotely transmitting such key health indicators as temperature, blood pressure and respiratory rate. The winning device will provide both the most accurate results and the most user-friendly experience.

As long as the device has a total mass of less than 5lb and is accessible remotely via the internet, its specific look and functionality will be left to the developing team to determine. According to the prize’s website, the winning device could employ such elements as “wireless sensors, imaging technologies and portable, non-invasive laboratory replacements” to measure and assess health data.

The idea here is to find ways of using cutting-edge technologies to give patients initial control over their own healthcare. The device will initially be made available to consumers in the USA, though later it could be adapted for use in other countries.

Although widespread access to health information and case studies on the internet has meant an increase in patients attempting to self-diagnose (much to the frustration of many medical professionals), there could be some advantage here in allowing patients to determine themselves whether they need professional care, when and from whom – thereby helping reduce unnecessary doctor visits, alleviating pressure on health services and decreasing wait times.

There could also be some application for patients living in remote areas where professional medical diagnosis is not readily accessible, although the device would have to feature a consistently high level of accuracy and be sufficiently easy to use. As to safety, the winning device would have to be approved by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before it can be used on the public – a process that normally takes years, but in this case will likely be facilitated by the FDA’s partnership with the X Prize Foundation.

Another factor to be considered is cost. In order for the device to benefit as wide as possible a market, there would have to be some provisions set in place for distribution or access, or measures taken to ensure the gadget’s price does not exclude vulnerable elements of the population.

Although finalists for the competition won’t be chosen for another two years, and no winner announced for at least three years, it’s still exciting that competitions like this exist. Not only will the winning device be a fascinating example of science fiction translating into reality, but it could also represent a ground-breaking turning point in medical technology that could alter the way healthcare is practiced forever.

Do you think a self-diagnosis gadget will be a valuable asset to medical technology? What other science fiction devices would you like to see become reality? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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