When the crew of the Enterprise travel back in time in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," Dr. McCoy is horrified by what appears to us - the viewers - to be a sleek, modern operating room. Of course our best practices would seem barbaric to a 23rd-century practitioner - with a wave of his compact, handheld tricorder, Bones can instantly analyze and diagnose his patients. But, as with many other pieces of Star Trek technology, we won't have to wait until the 23rd century for such a device - its earliest iterations may be available for consumer purchase by the end of 2013.
One company leading the way is Scanadu - named for a favorite poem of founder Walter de Brouwer - with their upcoming SCOUT device. Currently in alpha testing and awaiting approval from the FDA, the SCOUT is designed to detect and analyze several vital signs in just 10 seconds by simply being held up to the user's head.
A few live demos are floating around the Internet, and it looks ingeniously easy and noninvasive. By holding the SCOUT (which is about the size of a makeup compact or a MacBook power converter) between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand and pressing it to your left temple, you complete a sort of biocircuit. Electrodes touching the head and one finger function as an electrocardiogram (ECG) that measures your heart rate and rhythm. Against the other finger, a photoplethysmograph (PPG) reads your blood flow through your skin and measures your blood's oxygen saturation. An infrared thermometer touching the head takes your temperature.
The device collects and analyzes all this data within 10 seconds and sends it via Bluetooth 4.0 to your smartphone (iOS, Android or Windows), where you can then check out your vitals on the SCOUT app. The app (still in development) is slated to make recommendations about whether to seek medical attention and, though GPS, direct you to a nearby hospital or pharmacy if necessary.
Scanadu hopes that users will scan themselves at least daily and begin tracking their body's individual version of "normal." But even from the first reading out of the box, the company is betting that this instant access to medical data will empower people to make savvier choices about their medical care, avoiding costly doctors' appointments when they're unnecessary and freeing up doctors' time for seeing patients who do need attention. And they're looking to make this knowledge as affordable as possible - the SCOUT's planned retail price is $150.
Eventually, the company hopes that data collected from many users will help track and control outbreaks of infectious disease. They have an additional device in the works to help - the ScanFlu, which will analyze saliva samples for respiratory diseases like Strep, Influenza, Adenovirus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Another device, the ScanFlo, will test urine samples for things like pregnancy hormones and complications, urinary tract infections and kidney failure.
Walter de Brouwer founded Scanadu after his 5-year-old son took a fall out of a window and wound up spending months recovering in hospitals - de Brouwer says that the act of learning how to read and report his son's medical data helped the entire family survive the experience. Although his motivations are personal, his goal is shared - the SCOUT is just one entrant in the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, a $10 million competition to literally put healthcare in patients' hands.
Check out the talk and demonstration that Scanadu chief medical officer Dr. Alan Greene gave at the WIRED Health Conference in October of 2012: