Can we build an actual Star Trek medical tricorder? They’re sure trying

The tricorder, a high-tech medical analyzer used on the show Star Trek for instant diagnoses. Ship’s Doctor, Leonard “Bones” McCoy would just wave it in the general direction of the patient, twist a knob or two and, presto, there was the diagnosis. It would give him the information he needed to say, “I can’t tell what’s wrong with him.” Or “His organs are like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” Or, even the classic, “He’s dead, Jim.”

Well, there’s now a competition to build a real tricorder.

bones-tricorder

Scanadu is one such company in the competition. The Scout is their production model. It’s a small sensing device can measure heart rate and rhythm and irregular rhythms, EKG, temperature, oximetry (how much oxygen your blood is carrying), even do a urinalysis and give you an idea of just how stressed you are at the time. The Scout, when used with selected smartphone apps, will allow the consumer to make intelligent choices about his medical condition.

spock-tricorder

One possible scenario could be the patient is experiencing some chest pain, is sweaty and nauseated, maybe a little dizzy. He uses the Scout and finds that his heart rhythm is abnormally fast (or slow) with irregular beats. His oximetry is low and pulse wave transit time is abnormal. All point to primarily a cardiac event. The smart phone apps can analyze the data and say (cue Robbie the Robot voice) “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger. Sensors state that you are having a heart attack. No need to see Doctor Smith.”

The data recorded can be saved and/or transmitted to the doctor’s office or ER long before the patient gets there. So the staff has some baseline information about what was going on long before the patient arrives. The cost for the scout is projected to be about $200-$300. (Though Quark could probably get you a better deal.)

And the Scanadu Scout isn’t the only tricorder on the event horizon. There are several others. One of the reasons is that Qualcomm is offering an XPrize for the development of a small, portable, wireless medical sensor that can be used easily to help monitor health conditions. The prize? $10,000,000.

Several others besides the NCG Scout are approaching warp speed in this race. Some manufacturers are micro miniaturizing so that the sensor can be implanted, attached to the skin or even swallowed. Several have different sensors that will allow them to measure some other parameters from what the Scout measures. I’m afraid that one brand may even be able to reproduce itself. We may be flooded with tricorder tribbles. Several of these devices are undergoing tests for FDA approval right now.

This technology may be great for a number of patients, possibly cutting down on ER visits, motivating other to go to an ER or their PCPs when necessary. Of course, it may make Bones somewhat superfluous, under used, lonely. Replaced by a gadget.

I think I’ll go to Ten Forward, talk to Guinan, grab a bottle of Aldebaran whiskey and go hide out in an Escape Pod.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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