Bones – What’s Wrong With Spock?

A company by the name of Qualcomm has created a $10 million prize for any individual or team who can create a functioning Tricorder. For the few people out there who have never seen an episode of Star Trek or any of its movies, the medical Tricorder was a device used by the spaceship’s physician, to effectively diagnose anything and everything wrong with a patient.

The point was that there was no need for direct contact with the patient. The user of the device would pass a small wand (which was in fact an odd looking salt shaker)  over the patient and thus collect every bit of medical information necessary for a diagnosis. Although it was not formally noted on the TV show, it is assumed that the Tricorder would also present options for treatment, and of course record everything into the patient’s personal electronic medical record (EMR).

The point of this competition is extremely serious. There are a lot of very smart people out there and offering $10 million for a working Tricorder makes it worthwhile for a large number of groups to at least try to build something of use. From a medical perspective, $10 million for such a device is pocket change. A Tricorder would revolutionize the way in which medicine is practiced and would become a universal accoutrement, akin to the dangling stethoscope that presently marks many doctors.

Strictly speaking, there is no inherent limit to what a Tricorder could record, analyze, diagnose and offer treatment options for. In practice, version 1 of such a device will focus on common vital signs [like pulse and respiratory rate and blood pressure] as well as other critical points of data such as the level of oxygen in the blood and the level of sugar in the blood.

Just these data points would already transform the way in which health care is provided. A Tricorder could be at the bedside of every patient and be a constant monitor for any acute change in the health of the patient. So imagine the Tricorder constantly monitoring the heart function of a patient and immediately notifying the nurse when the patient’s heart rhythm or pulse or blood pressure radically change. A good part of nursing has to do with constantly measuring the status of the patient. If this part of nursing can be automated and improved on, nurses would be freed to focus on other critical functions.

The future versions of the Tricorder would likely be able to track the entire medical record of the patient and make sure that the right medications are given [in the proper doses and at the proper times] as well as double check that all tests have been done and that the results are immediately available. Imagine a patient who is approached for a chest x-ray but the Tricorder immediately shouts out that this patient was not booked for such a test, and more so has no indication for such a test. The nurse on the floor and the treating doctor would be immediately notified and this procedure would be canceled.

The tech literature, as well as many newspapers, have been speaking at length about wearable computing and using smart watches to measure vital signs. People may ask how packaging all of these sensors and data analysis tools in one device, like a Tricorder, makes any difference. As I noted above, there will be many versions of the Tricorder . And each version will have new features that may or may not exist in other wearable technology. The point is that the Tricorder will become a focus of research that brings together many different developers from many different companies.

The Tricorder should be thought of as a platform on which other sensors and data analysis tools can be attached. So, in time, version 6 [for example] of the Tricorder may have components from 20 different sources. But because all of these sources were focused on enhancing this one common device, time and resources were not wasted on building alternate and competing Tricorders. Imagine how far we can reach when so many people are focusing all of their creative and engineering capabilities on one common platform.

I personally believe that we will already see a highly functional Tricorder in the next few years. And soon enough, people will wonder how we ever managed without it. It is the same kind of feeling that one has when they forget their phone at home. You simply cannot imagine how just a couple of decades ago, cell phone technology was in its infancy, and limited to a small group of users. In a couple of decades from now, not having access to a Tricorder will effectively tie the healthcare provider’s hands. There probably won’t even be a stethoscope hanging around to be used as a temporary replacement.

Clearly, a Tricorder would be a tremendous device for providing healthcare in the developing world. In one device, you would have the ability to manage the vast majority of patients coming to a rural clinic in, for example, Kenya. As an aside, it will not be that long before it is possible to 3-D print medications. So imagine a clinic working purely off of solar power, that can fully diagnose any patient and offer treatment to the majority of those in need. For the patients needing surgery, well, the question is whether remote robotic surgery will finally find a place across areas that do not have access to on-site surgeons.

I’ve said this before but I will continue to reiterate it. At least in medicine, we are living in magical times. And every day brings us closer to treatments and cures for those diseases that ravage our loved ones today. When I pray, I pray that this new age of medicine should be fully realized as soon as possible.

Thanks for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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