16 2015

This summer, a three-year-old competition to create a mobile device similar to the fabled Star Trek tricorder will come to a close. And organizers are expecting that the winning device will soon be in American homes.

'We're going to have a diagnostic device that's going to be in the palm of your hand in the next couple of years," Rick Valencia, senior vice president of Qualcomm Life, predicted during a session at this week's HIMSS15 Conference and Exhibition in Chicago.

The big question, however, will be whether healthcare providers take notice.

Launched in 2012, the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition uses the iconic Star Trek device to envision a consumer-facing mHealth monitor that can accurately diagnose 15 different globally prevalent medical conditions, ranging from anemia to tuberculosis, and capture five vital health metrics from the comfort of one's home, or office, or wherever. Among the many conditions: It can't weigh more than five pounds, it has to be "safe, desirable and fun for consumers," and it's ultimate goal is to empower people "to take charge of their health."

Two of the eight teams in competition for that prize displayed their concepts at HIMSS15. And immediately it was evident that these tricorders will be nothing like the paperback-sized device used in Star Trek, for three reasons:

[See also: $10 million bounty issued for Star Trek-like mHealth scanner]

1.As presented, they consist of several connected devices, rather than one;

2.They don't make that iconic sound ("We still have eight weeks to go," Robert Kaul, founder and president of CloudDX, chuckled when asked that very question); and

3.They're designed for consumers, not Bones McCoy or any of his real-life colleagues.

That's a key point, and one that Grant Campany, senior director of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE (as well as the Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE), noted during his introduction of the two finalists at HIMSS15.

"When we thought about healthcare, we knew the concept of the medical tricorder has been around a long time," Campany said. They also know that the product would have to be "independent of the healthcare professional," in that it's designed to be used by the consumer.

Why? Campany said the healthcare industry is facing a severe shortage of providers, not to mention a shift to consumer-facing services, so devices like the tricorder will help to give consumers access to needed healthcare services without overwhelming their primary care physician. An mHealth platform like the tricorder, he said, would not only make for a more informed patient, but give doctors and nurses a wealth of data from which to make a better diagnosis and treatment plan. And all that without the time-consuming trip to the doctor's office.

"Technologies like this are going to have a dramatic impact on the world," Campany said.

As for the devices, Star Trek purists might not be thrilled, but this was never about mashing up Hollywood with healthcare anyway. As conceived by Kaul's Canada-based team and Danvantri, from India, the collection of high-tech sensors and analysis tools looks to bring the doctor's office into the home.

"It's a little nerve-wracking right now," Kaul confessed to an audience of roughly two dozen people while showing off the Vitaliti, noting that his team had succeeded in coming up with all the pieces of the puzzle and was now still working on fitting them together.

CloudDX's offering, so far, consists of five separate elements, focused on a horseshoe-shaped device worn around the neck that, among other things, allows for continuous ECG monitoring for 72 hours. An attached earpiece measures pulse oximetry and temperature, while a small in-vitro diagnostic platform similar to a blood glucose testing kit can draw seven different assays from a small drop of blood. There's also a miniaturized camera with a built-in spirometer, and all of this synchs with a smartphone app that draws in all the data, including responses to a questionnaire, to make a diagnosis.

Kaul said his company plans to first offer the Vitaliti as a "lifestyle device" while it seeks FDA approval – which can take upwards of 18 months – for classification as a medical device. Users would be able to download the app, then go to Amazon or run out to the nearest pharmacy or Best Buy to pick up the rest of the kit.

[See also: Mobile sensors take the spotlight in X PRIZE challenge]

Danvantri, meanwhile, was on hand with the aptly named Treknosis. Team leader Sridharan Mani showed off the array of sensors that all tie into a small, matchbox-shaped device called the body organ life tracker, or BOLT.

Mani said the platform not only tracks vital signs and gives users a diagnosis, but can be programmed through an API by the provider to send a different set of results to clinicians, depending on what they want to track.

That feature just might be the most important of all the tricorder's functions. Right now, the Tricorder XPRIZE competition is fun and fantastic, a race to bring the future of healthcare into the home. It'll make the headlines and appeal to the consumer who's very much into measuring his or her own health and fitness. But like so many other new types of technology out there – think wearables and smartwatches – what might catch the public's eye isn't necessarily appealing to healthcare.

These devices, when marketed to the public, need to emphasize the connection that can be made with healthcare providers. Sure, it'll be great to do all of this at home, and to know what you've got before you get in touch with the doctor – but you still have to get in touch with the doctor. You, as the consumer, will have all this new data, and you'll need the clinician, the expert, to turn that data into a meaningful outcome.

That's why, in Star Trek, Bones McCoy held the tricorder, not the patient.