How will healthcare evolve in the digital economy? Our exploration of some of the newest medical devices reveals where we might be headed–and it’s not the doctor’s office.
The Tricorder Is In
Fifteen diseases, 16 health problems, 5 vital signs: those are the requirements for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, a global competition to create the next innovations in precision diagnostic tools. The competition aims to change healthcare as we know it by making medicine faster and cheaper and by putting health monitoring and diagnosis into the hands of consumers. The winning device will need to be portable, accurate, wireless, and usable by consumers and must weigh less than five pounds.
Scanadu’s XPRIZE entry is a small, white puck with top and side sensors. When held to your forehead, it sends health data, including heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure, to a smartphone app through Bluetooth. You’ll be able to take, track, and submit your own vitals, without the trip to doctor’s office. The device could ease the decision about whether an emergency room visit is in order and provide a full snapshot of patients’ vitals when they get there. Scanadu has tapped into an eager market: It has raised US$1.7 million through Indiegogo and has a further US$49.7 million in funding.
Forget about big needles. Initially developed for diagnosing and treating astronauts in space, the rHEALTH X1 device from DNA Medical Institute, another XPRIZE contender, uses nanotechnology to provide fast, accurate blood tests from a single drop. The blood sample is combined in a small container with nanoscale test strips and reagents, mixed in a spiral micromixer of the institute’s own design, and then passed through a laser. The resulting data could be used to diagnose hundreds of diseases almost instantly.
The core of digital business is the merging of the physical and virtual worlds. These devices show how that fusion can have the most dramatic impacts on people’s lives, bringing together the physical and virtual worlds in a profound way.
Because tumors constantly change and release genetic material into the blood stream, conventional tissue biopsies don’t catch them. This means biopsies aren’t always accurate. They’re pricey, too. Guardant Health developed the “liquid biopsy,” Guardant360, to address those problems. The test needs only two tubes of blood. The company uses DNA sequencing technology it has developed to return results to the oncologist within two weeks.
This is a game-changer for wound treatment. Inspired by battlefield medics’ emergency experience, RevMedx’s XStat syringe could transform how life-threatening wounds are treated. Usually, a combat wound is packed with gauze and pressure applied until the bleeding stops—an inefficient and painful procedure. The large, plastic XStat syringe is packed with sponges derived from shrimp shells. The sponges are compact within the syringe: they measure just one centimeter in diameter. Once injected into a wound, they expand, fill the cavity, and staunch blood flow in just 20 seconds. The plug can stay in place for up to four hours before it needs to be removed (a marker that is visible on an X-ray ensures each sponge can be found). Although so far, the device has been approved only for military use, RevMedx is developing a similar tool to use in developing countries with women who suffer from post-natal bleeding.
Gaming technology and science fiction have inspired new ways of shopping and connecting with people in social media. These devices show how these concepts can be brought to medicine to deliver innovative approaches to chronic conditions.
Is it unhealthy to play video games? One answer: not if they’re designed as therapy for specific health issues. Game maker Ubisoft and Amblyotech, a startup targeting treatment for ocular problems, have teamed up to create Dig Rush, a video game to help people with “lazy eye” (amblyopia). The traditional treatment—wearing an eye patch—may take years, isn’t always effective, and doesn’t work for older patients. Dig Rush retrains the brain to respond correctly to visual cues. To play, patients wear 3D glasses while controlling moles that dig for gold and treasure. Look for more therapeutic games that make medical treatments (somewhat) fun.
While the name might bring to mind the corrupted HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in this instance HAL (which stands for Hybrid Assistive Limb) is a force for good. It’s the “world’s first cyborg-type robot,” according to maker Cyberdyne (the name recalls another movie: it’s the same as the fictional firm responsible for the Terminator robots). The HAL exoskeleton can interpret skin-level brain signals through sensors, creating a feedback response wherein the brain learns to send out movement-related signals. HAL helps people with mobility impairments improve their scope of movement and independence and makes it easier for workers to lift heavy objects.