Qualcomm offers $10 million for real-life tricorder, not a moment too soon
Margery Conner, Technical Editor - February 16, 2012
During the past month, I have visited three hospitals for various family members, and, in each case, human error caused some severe mistakes: misread charts, incorrect drug prescriptions, and incorrect surgical procedures. Yet, these medical professionals are perfectly competent individuals. They are humans dealing with an extremely complicated system. When aspirin and morphine were among the only available drugs and patients were receiving treatment for one of the few diseases that medical “science” was able to treat, mere humans could track complex drug interactions, surgical procedures, and the like—nowadays, not so much.
You’ve probably heard of hospitals that remarkably improved their success rates by implementing checklists for procedures. Atul Gawande, MD, author of The Checklist Manifesto and a contributor to The New Yorker, initiated and champions the concept of checklists in hospitals. “Gawande begins by making a distinction between errors of ignorance (mistakes we make because we don’t know enough) and errors of ineptitude (mistakes we made because we don’t make proper use of what we know),” writes Malcolm Gladwell in a review of the book. “Failure in the modern world, he writes, is really about the second of these errors, and he walks us through a series of examples from medicine showing how the routine tasks of surgeons have now become so incredibly complicated that mistakes ... are virtually inevitable. It’s just too easy for an otherwise-competent doctor to miss a step, or forget to ask a key question, or, in the stress and pressure of the moment, fail to plan properly for every eventuality.”
Computers competently keep track of what we know and follow checklists. Combine these characteristics with some clever sensor systems, and you just might come up with a tricorder—and not a moment too soon.
Qualcomm is offering a $10 million prize, the Tricorder X-Prize, for the first noninvasive health-diagnostic tool. For those of you who are rusty on your Star Trek plot lines, the tricorder is a piece of equipment that takes a quick scan of an injured or sick patient and instantly both diagnoses the problem and prescribes a treatment.
The winning team will be the one with the technology that most accurately diagnoses a set of diseases without using input from a doctor or a nurse and that provides the best user experience—thus most likely eliminating the use of invasive probes that play such prominent roles in alien-abduction stories. It will capture metrics for patient health. These metrics could include blood pressure, respiratory rate, and temperature. The device can, however, use sensors or electrodes that attach to the skin.
Looking toward the future, Qualcomm sees this tool collecting large volumes of data from ongoing measurement of health states through a combination of wireless sensors; imaging technologies; and portable, noninvasive laboratory replacements. “Noninvasive” means that the treatment would require neither biopsies nor blood tests. The only limitation is that the weight of both the tool and any components it requires must total 5 lbs or less.
Qualcomm implies that the benefits of having a tricorder-like device are to bypass the personnel shortage and thus save time and money. I think there’s another benefit that could be just as great: The diagnosis and ensuing care from a computer could be much better than that from a human. Paraphrasing from the Qualcomm site, a tricorder-like device will go a long way toward transforming health care by turning the “art” of medicine into a science.
Bones, we’re ready.
Read more on this topic on the PowerSource blog.
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