All-purpose Diagnostic Tool Puts the Doctor in the Palm of Your Hand

By David L. Chandler

NOTE: This is an overview of the entire article, which appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of IEEE Pulse magazine.
Click here to read the entire article.

Biotechnology research has expanded to include new and diverse sciences such as the development of revolutionary pharmaceutical therapies and diagnostic tests. It may not be long before we can hold “a Doctor in the palm of our hand.” The vision of a multi-purpose hand held diagnostic device was the springboard for the creation of what is now known as the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition. The prize officially launched in 2011, but it wasn’t until last fall that the final roster of teams submitted their registrations. Thirty-four teams have signed up, representing everything from established biomedical companies to colleges to small start-up enterprises to a group of high school students – geographically spread from Taiwan to Slovenia to Utah. The number of teams will eventually be reduced to ten finalists who will square off next year in a final set of tests to determine who will win the top three prizes – US$7 million, US$2 million, and US$1 million, respectively for the top-scoring devices.

According to the XPRIZE’s founder, Peter Diamandis, the goal of a hand held diagnostic device may seem almost impossible, but some key elements are already beginning to appear at the cutting edge of technology. Diamandis adds that the successful implementation of these devices could change the face of healthcare forever.

There are three broad categories on which the entries will be judged: first, diagnosing a suite of 15 specific diseases; second, providing ongoing long-term monitoring of basic vital signs; and third, providing information to the user – the actual patient, not a doctor, nurse, or other professional – in a form that’s easy to use and understand.

“Almost half the score is the user interface,” says Erik Viirre, a neurologist at the University of California San Diego medical center and the medical director of the competition. “That’s the key ingredient that’s going to make the difference.”

Also, every device has to be able to successfully record, over time, five basic vital signs: pulse, respiration, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and body temperature. In addition, “the bar that everybody has to clear is safety.” Viirre says. The systems must be as noninvasive as possible and can’t expose their users to electric shocks, chemicals, or high temperatures.

The only overall rule is that all of the device’s components together can’t weigh more than 5lbs. – though the organizers doubt that anyone will come close to that heft, since having a lightweight unit is likely to be a big factor in the usability scoring.

Thanks to the push provided by the incentive of the XPRIZE, the day when a broad range of people will be able to enjoy the convenience and peace of mind of having a diagnostic lab in their medicine cabinet may not be very far away.



David L. Chandler was a science writer for The Boston Globe for years and has also written for Nature, Wired, New Scientist, Smithsonian, Astronomy, Technology Review, The Atlantic, and many other publications. He is the author of Life on Mars as well as portions of other books. He currently works for the MIT News Office and is also freelance writer.