Chasing the dream of the medical tricorder
Dr. McCoy’s medical tricorder from the Star Trek series, which could scan a patient and immediately tell the diagnosis, basic vital signs and health parameters is the dream of many doctors. In 2012, Qualcomm announced the Tricorder XPRIZE competition offering millions of dollars to anyone who could come up with the device. The challenge recently ended with a winner and a runner up. Of the 300 teams that joined the pursuit of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, Final Frontier Medical Devices received 2.5 million dollars as the winner and Dynamical Biomarkers Group $1 million as the runner-up at the awards ceremony on April 12, 2017.
If you look at Final Frontier Medical Devices’ DxtER, it functions rather as a collection of non-invasive medical-diagnosis gadgets than being an all-in-one scanner. It measures heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, body temperature and oxygen saturation. It offers a Mono test kit, an ECG monitor, and devices like the DxtER Orb, which doubles as a thermometer and stethoscope. However, those eager early birds trying to buy the gadget still have to wait years until it hits the consumer market. The start-up actually plans to use the awarded 2.5 million dollars to run a 500-patient clinical trial.
The other finalist, Dynamical Biomarkers Group delivered a solution in what looks like a cross between a first aid kit and a fishing tackle box. It presented various blood tests in the kit alongside sensors measuring vital signs and a smart scope. It was visible that the XPRIZE contestants were striving for making a simple diagnosing process at the point-of-care (close to the patient wherever her or she may be).
How do portable diagnostic devices currently on the market perform?
Although the above devices can measure many vital signs and health parameters, the Star Trek tricorder Dr. McCoy used is still far from reality. But any portable digital health innovation that makes diagnoses faster, more accurate and cheaper on the go is crucial in making the patient the point-of-care. It’s just awful that in the 21st century, we still have to spend time and dedicate efforts to measuring basic vital signs. This should be step No. 0. By the time the patient meets caregivers, any required data should be made available in an accurate way. This is the notion portable diagnostic devices are meant to support and further develop.
I decided to dedicate a lot of time and effort to analyzing the performances of portable diagnostic devices currently on the market in order to help anyone who wants to buy such a gadget or to support anyone who wants to develop the already existing innovation further. How well can it measure health parameters? Does it have FDA-approval? How accurate is the measurement? How user-friendly is it? Does it communicate with a smartphone? The latter is a crucial reason for including a device in this list as a digital health device. No matter how well it can measure health parameters, communicating with a smartphone should be an important component of its system to make it really impactful.
1) Digital stethoscopes
Doctors have always relied on the stethoscope to diagnose common conditions, from asthma and pneumonia to the common cold. The modern stethoscope has become a symbol of being a physician. Digital stethoscopes lift the old-fashioned device to new heights in order to meet the requirements of the 21st century. I recommend them to every medical professional!
One of the greatest digital health devices on the market at the moment. It is small, really simple, portable and smart. It lets patients and doctors measure heart rate, as well as record heart and lung sounds saving it automatically to the app. Since it combines next generation infra-red technology with Bluetooth connectivity, you can also stream the measurements to a clinician remotely, storing them for comparisons later. Clinicloud incorporates also a thermometer into its device. It takes temperature readings instantly with no skin contact required. I reviewed it in details here.
b) Eko Core
The Eko Core digital stethoscope has a lot of similarities with Clinicloud. It is also small and portable, so it fits into the pockets of busy doctors. Its use is really simple, and it provides smart measurements: records heart, lung and other sounds. With the Eko Core, medical professionals are also able to save, process and share sound data using their mobile devices. When Medgadget reviewed it, they were even able to listen to crickets and cicadas in the neighborhood. The difference between the two gadgets is that Eko Core also works in analog mode, meaning it can act like the traditional stethoscope. It sounds like a great idea – perhaps this trick is going to be help convince medical professionals reluctant to use digital health innovations to try new technologies in their work.
2) One-channel ECG
Wiwe is a smart sensor using a unique, intelligent algorithm that evaluates the properties of the ECG wave to calculate if there is a risk of a fib-related stroke and sudden cardiac arrest. It not only gives accurate data about ECG, blood oxygen level or different physical activities, but the use of the pedometer function helps to reduce the risks related to heart diseases. Due to the connectivity of the smart gadget, not only the user, but also his chosen partners (loved ones and relatives) can get to know instantly, if anything like a sudden cardiac arrest happens.
As I wrote it in my review, Alivecor has a special meaning to me, since it produced the first digital health device I have ever seen and used. Kardia is an FDA-approved, medical-grade ECG recorder. It is only a little bit thicker than your credit card, fitting perfectly into your purse or pocket. The default option for the heart monitor is to take a 30 second recording, and it gives you a proper analysis after it detects your heart rate. This means that it immediately tells you whether your ECG is normal, whether you possibly have atrial fibrillation or whether you might experience some “unclassified” risks, such as premature atrial contractions (PACs) or premature ventricular contractions (PVCs). It is the ultimate smartphone ECG.
3) Multi-channel ECG – The ECG Dongle
The above ECG monitors were single-lead ECGs, commonly known as rhythm strips; while multi-channel – usually 12-lead – ECGs record information from different views of the heart, and provide a more complete picture of electrical activity. While both types of ECG monitoring are viable, there is only one multi-channel ECG for smart devices on the market: the ECG Dongle developed by the Russian company, Nordavind. It hit the market in two versions: one for average users and the other one for medical professionals. The gadget, which is actually USB flash drive, calculates heart data for average users through 6 standard leads (I, II, III, aVR, aVL, AVF) and for medical professionals through 12 standard leads. It is enough to detect all kinds (100%) of arrhythmias, while it requires respectively four or ten electrodes. Although ECG Dongle works quite nicely, it does not have any FDA (or any similar healthcare regulatory agency) approval.
This is probably the closest device to the medical tricorder. It is truly multifaceted: functions as a health tracker (just like a wearable sensor), records your ECG (electrophysiology of your heart), measures your blood oxygen saturation, the number of steps you take a day, serves as a thermometer, a blood pressure tracker, sleep monitor and a reminder. It’s quite an all-in-one package. Needless to say, it is portable, very light, hand-held and transfers data wirelessly. Moreover, it gained FDA-approval and has an amazing battery time. Although you can use it both at home and in a clinical setting, I would rather recommend it for medical professionals. You can even use it as an ECG Holter monitor for 24 hours.
Although the O2 Sleep Monitor is first of all calibrated as a device for sleep tracking, it is able to measure many vital signs and health parameters. It monitors your blood oxygen and heart rate level as well as your movements. When your blood oxygen level drops too low (e.g. below 90%), a small vibration function signals it to help overcome the oxygen shortage. Basically, it buzzes you to switch position during sleeping, which is a helpful feature for people who struggle with sleep apnoe as well as snoring. Besides, it is a truly comfortable device for sleep tracking, I tested it through several nights and you can check out my results here.
5) Thermometer – Wishbone
It is quite obvious that the device received its name because it looks like an actual wishbone people use for good luck, and I really like this idea in connection with early parenthood. And although the Wishbone Smart Thermometer was developed for taking the temperature of small children, you can use it for measuring how warm your child’s food is or what is the temperature outside in only a few seconds. It is non-invasive, reliable and versatile for many applications, but it is not an FDA-approved device. The developer as a father and a baby product store owner realized that there is a need for a small, easy-to-use thermometer that measures and monitors temperature using a smartphone. We can only hail this realization and the great execution of the idea.
6) Blood pressure – Withings Blood Pressure Monitor
There are plenty of great blood pressure monitors on the market, but very few digital ones communicating with smart devices. The Withings Blood Pressure Monitor is an exception: easy to use, stylish, FDA-approved, wireless and digital. You simply put on the cuff, turn on the device and the Health Mate app will automatically launch. Following a brief set of instructions, you are ready to take your blood pressure. The app will give you instant feedback based on the international recommendations for hypertension. Because tracking over time helps you better understand heart health, the Health Mate app stores all your BP readings. Moreover it creates an easy-to-understand chart.
The Portable Medical Device Matrix
As digital health advances, there will be a myriad of new devices; and we will need the help of regulatory agencies, like the FDA, to dedicate their efforts to filter out the reliable and accurate ones. However, I am gladly joining their forces in as much as I will keep testing both FDA-approved and non-approved, but promising gadgets and share with you my findings here.