Scouting your Health with Scanadu

A while ago, I posted about the XPrize being offered for the development of a Tricorder-like health-tracking device. In the last few weeks, one promising entrant, the Scanadu Scout, has raised $1.3 million through Indiegogo.

The Scanadu Scout is a small, handheld, disc-shaped device that when placed against your forehead is able to measure your pulse, temperature, oximetry, heart rate variability, pulse wave transit time, stress and even perform an ECG. It connects wireless with a smartphone which is able to track your data over time.

Pulse wave what?

Now if your eyes glazed over as you read that list of variables, you’re not alone. What exactly do these measurements mean and will the average person be able to comprehend all but the simplest of them? With a little research, here’s what I found.

Pulse oximetry measures the level of oxygen in a person’s blood and is generally used during operations, emergency and intensive care. However, it can also be used to detect medical conditions such as pneumonia, anemia, lung cancer and heart failure.

Pulse wave transit time provides a continuous reading for blood pressure. Easy enough.

Heart rate variability is a measure of how much the beat to beat interval of your heart rate varies. This is a good thing, and in fact, reduced heart rate variability is the thing to watch out for. It can be associated with diabetic neuropathy, heart failure, susceptibility to SIDS. It has also been related to increased stress levels, emotional anxiety and PTSD, says Wikipedia.

A Picture of Health or TMI?

Great, so now you can tell if you’re stressed out! Or rather, are you going to start stressing out about diabetic neuropathy and heart failure? Even with trackers as straightforward as the Fitbit, it’s a complex task trying to derive insight from the data. How are users to parse and understand what the Scanadu Scout will tell them?

On the other hand, having a picture of your general health can be vital. As a child growing up in Dubai, there were many times when a doctor’s visit culminated in a blood test. This was a first step to diagnosing non-obvious illnesses.

The test provides some insight into whether an illness is serious, but more importantly, the collective blood reports provide a narrative picture of your health.

On moving to the US, I was shocked when a coworker went through a year of constant flu-like illness without being offered a single blood test. When he finally got one, they found that his white blood cell counts were through the roof, and he was diagnosed with leukemia. A simple blood test early on could have put this friend on a path to recovery much earlier.

Understanding the data

So I certainly see the value of having access to such information, but I’m also eager to see how Scanadu handles educating their users on what the information actually means for them. We’ve all gone through the experience of looking up a symptom on the internet to find a horrifying list of diseases we might have.  A thoughtful approach will be essential to  provide users insight that is useful without causing undue stress. And at the same time, users will have to consider whether they can handle tracking their health without turning into hypochondriacs!

What do you think? Is ignorance bliss? Or would you rather get a heads up from one of these new devices? Let me know in the comments.

The Star Trek Tricorder – Almost Here?

It’s amazing to me how many of our new inventions have their roots in science fiction. The original flip-phones look very similar to the Star Trek communicator. Gestural interfaces entered our consciousness through Minority Report. If you remember the Tricorder from Star Trek, it was a device that could diagnose patients with a simple wave. That too, may be a reality soon, in some capacity.

The Tricorder X Prize

In January of this year, the X Prize Foundation started a $10 million competition to build a real Tricorder. With the current convergence of innovations in sensors, wireless communication, and high powered processors, the Tricorder may very well be possible today. The foundation, funded by Qualcomm, created a set of requirements for the competition. The Tricorder must be able to diagnose a set of conditions such as diabetes, anaemia, etc. In addition, it must be simple enough for a regular consumer and weigh no more than 5 pounds.

These last two limits are crucial. By making the device simple and portable, it enables a wide audience of regular people to take control of their health. Marginalized users, such as caregivers in rural areas, can take advantage of medical technology more advanced than what many hospitals have access to. Home users could determine whether a visit to an ER is necessary, diagnosing issues such as a heart attack or stroke that may require immediate attention. Of course the device currently needs more that just a wave to work, but nothing invasive.

To the cloud

The next step, of course, is to take that data to the cloud. Data-mining algorithms could then find new patterns of disease detection and prevention. What does that mean to you? Well, on a personal level, it could detect your personal patterns that lead to migraine, stroke, or diabetes. On a global level, it could find new unnoticed symptoms before, during and after a disease. It could find correlations between symptoms that lead to a new understanding of certain conditions.

Naturally, there will be many privacy issues to consider, and of course at first the Tricorder can only collect certain metrics. It won’t be able to tell if you are depressed or itchy, for example. Already, many people in the Quantified Self movement are tracking many of their own personal metrics, so a device like the Tricorder would be invaluable to them. But that’s a story for another day.

What about you? Ready to be diagnosed by a Tricorder?
Or still prefer the cold, long wait in your doctor’s waiting room?
Let me know in the comments.