In parallel with the rise of new distributed energy systems that are putting renewable energy technology into the hands of consumers, the health care industry is heading for a distributed system of its own with the development of portable, consumer-friendly diagnostic devices. To push this “distributed health care” trend along, the X PRIZE Foundation and the Qualcomm Foundation have staked a $10 million prize for the invention of a portable device that shares the hallmark features of the tricorder, a fictional diagnostic instrument first made famous by the original 1960’s Star Trek TV series. Their success could have widespread implications not only within the health care industry but also in terms of energy and resource consumption.
Health Care and Energy Consumption
Conventional brick-and-mortar health care facilities face all the energy consumption challenges of any building, with additional complications including a growing array of energy sucking medical equipment and waste disposal issues. The health care industry has been working to address these challenges, most recently with a new energy conservation partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy. However, given an aging population in the U.S. and greater access to health care in developing countries, overall demand for energy in health care could be in for a steep increase regardless of conservation efforts.
The Energy Efficient Future of Diagnostic Medicine
For a permanent solution to health care related energy consumption, there must be a fundamental transformation in the way that medicine is practiced. One avenue of pursuit is the use of non-invasive technologies, and that is where the tricorder concept comes in. In the science fiction world of Star Trek, a medical tricorder – not to be confused with the Romulan tricorder, the Klingon tricorder or the standard Starfleet multifunction tricorder – is a specialty instrument used primarily by trained medical personnel. The wireless, handheld device can make instant diagnoses when held near its object, without the need for invasive procedures.
Distributing Medical Power to Consumers
The Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE is focused exactly on this type of device, but with one very significant difference. Instead of being designed for use by trained medical professionals, the winning device will focus instead on an instrument that can be used by ordinary consumers.
Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation explained the consumer-centric focus in a prepared statement:
“There is a dire need to improve access to health care globally and provide consumers with an opportunity to be active participants in their own health. The Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE will incent the creation of technologies that can empower the consumer with the ability to decide when, where and how to seek health information and care.”
As far as energy consumption goes, one immediate impact of the device would be to cut down on unnecessary trips for medical attention, especially emergency care. More broadly, it could help cut down on the unnecessary use of medical resources and enable consumers to focus on diet and lifestyle adjustments.
Medical Tricorders, from Fantasy to Reality
Just a few years ago the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE might have seemed like a science fiction dream, but now the technology is within reach. Consumer electronics in general have been steadily following Moore’s Law, with computing functionality that once required a sturdy desk and a wire tether now slipping into a pocket and operating on the go.
The tandem trend in diagnostic medicine is toward wireless sensing, advanced imaging and “lab-on-chip” miniaturized diagnostic systems.
Who Will Win the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE?
Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE competitors who are serious about winning better get a move on, because tricorder-small medical devices are already in development on several fronts.
A research team from Imperial College London and the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering in Singapore, for example, is harnessing the power of T-rays to develop a small medical scanner that can detect tumors and other soft tissue anomalies.
T-ray is short for Terahertz, the extremely long rays at the infrared end of the light spectrum. T-ray technology is already in use in airport scanners and materials research, but the equipment is bulky and expensive, and requires a large volume of energy along with temperature control systems.
The research team, headed by Singapore-based Dr. Jing Hua Teng, solved the problem by amplifying two different wavelengths with the help of a nanoscale antenna integrated into a semiconductor chip. The result is a smaller, more powerful device that provides higher resolution.
Here in the U.S., the Office of Naval Research has developed a handheld, battery-powered device it calls the Infrascanner, designed to make a quick assessment of brain trauma in conditions far removed from conventional diagnostic equipment, namely in battlefields or on ships at sea.
Consistent with the philosophy expressed by Dr. Diamandis, the Infrascanner focuses on ease of use. Practically anyone can pick one up and understand the diagnosis on the first try. The scan takes about a minute and literally gives the green light if no internal bleeding is detected. If bleeding is detected, the Infrascanner provides a simple indication of the severity with three progressively sized red lights.
The Infrascanner was recently approved by the Federal Drug Administration and field testing is in the planning works.
In the meantime, Marines are already one-upping the Tricorder competition with a few tests of their own. In addition to performance metrics, they are “ruggedizing” a version of the Infrascanner by exposing it to water, sand, salt spray and other conditions that could be encountered on the battlefield – or, for that matter, on strange new worlds where no man has gone before.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.