How Science And Technology Can Save Lives, One App At A Time

Uproxx knows that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines are driving the future of this planet forward. Every day, we see new ideas, fresh innovations, and bold trailblazers in these fields. Follow us this month as we highlight how STEM is shaping the culture of NOW.

When laypeople think of medicine, we tend to think in the abstract — of advanced technology, new drugs, and other sweeping innovations sure to cure millions of what ails them. But medicine is ultimately a one-on-one science, and saving lives tends to happen on a person-by-person basis. The problem is that getting face time with a doctor is expensive and almost impossible to come by in remote areas.

That’s where STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)-based tools come in. Thanks to futuristic innovations, medicine is becoming both individualized and less expensive. Sooner than you think, medical diagnosis will be in the palm of your hand and rather than wondering if that ache or pain is a problem, you’ll be able to get a clear reading.

Sounds like something from TV, right? Oddly enough, this road to a brighter tomorrow began with the seemingly absurd goal of building a tool from Star Trek. In 2012, Qualcomm announced the Tricorder X-Prize. The Tricorder, as Trekkies know, is the scanner that characters wave around in all iterations of the show. It’s a device that instantly tells the crew about local minerals, air quality, injuries, etc. Though that sounds impossible, the tricorders that XPrize wanted were only slightly less ambitious.

“XPrize envisioned a medical Tricorder that would be used by consumers and open the door to addressing a significant global unmet need,” explains prize head Grant Campany, “providing hundreds of millions of people around the world with access to modern medical technology, by extending the reach of nurses and physicians into rural locations around the world.”

The goal was to create a device that was non-invasive (i.e. you didn’t need to jab yourself with needles) and that would scan various bodily markers for signs of 15 different diseases. Instead of going in for a physical every six months, data would collect over time, and if a problem popped up, only then would you schedule an office visit. Campany notes that XPrize also wanted a product that was useful in an emergency: “So, if your child gets sick in the middle of the night parents will have the tools necessary to rapidly assess the health of their children via direct access to physicians.”

The winner of the $10 million prize was DxTer — a product by Basil Leaf Technologies designed to be used by the person on the street. DxTer, at its root, is an app that connects to a collection of medical devices, ranging from blood pressure monitors to spirometers. Spend a few minutes following the instructions, and DxTer’s diagnostic engine crunches the data and offers you a diagnosis. If DxTer thinks you’ve got a problem, the next step is to call the doctor.

In an era of data-driven information, this is an example of numbers being used to save lives.

DxTer isn’t the only home diagnostic tool in the works. A machine vision algorithm trained to spot skin cancers has an accuracy rate of over 80% — meaning soon your questions about whether you should be worried about “that mole” can be answered with a quick snap of your smartphone. Other medical device companies are hard at work on a device that can scan your breath for compounds that are harbingers of disease. Even Google is developing a device that lets you test your blood without needles.

Still, Campany sees these innovations going even further.

“Think of products that commonly come into contact with the human body—chairs, beds, cribs, clothes,” he notes. “Each have the potential for integrating certain sensing technologies and collecting information that could be used to monitor our health, which is extremely important for high-risk patients: elderly and infants.”

As the technology improves, we’ll be able to monitor chronic conditions, or identify health problems before they happen. In fact, many of us have already taken the first step, by reporting what we eat to calorie-counting apps and tracking our exercise with Fitbits. We’re rapidly approaching a future where you can get a monthly physical with your phone, a few apps, and a handful of medical devices you buy at the drugstore.

These devices won’t completely replace your doctor, of course. But they’re not supposed to. Instead, they’ve got two jobs:

1) To cut down on medical costs.

It’s estimated by some economists that one-third of all healthcare spending, $800 billion, comes from unnecessary medical testing (some of which might even put patients at risk). Meanwhile, a second segment of people only go to the doctor when they’re sick — often when illnesses are more serious and more expensive to treat. Chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, make up 75% of America’s health care. The earlier they’re caught, the less invasive and easier the treatments are. In some cases, disease can be prevented all together. One in four Americans with diabetes doesn’t realize they’re sick, for example. Doctors will be better able to treat their patients if these patients give themselves a basic physical every month, and the doctors are later provided with months, or even years, of data to analyze.

2) Creating a vast, anonymous medical database.

“The potential insights,” Campany tells us, “to be obtained to improve healthcare via personalized and targeted care and treatment are profound.”

Currently, much of our “baseline” medical data comes from ambitious work like the Framingham Heart Study, where thousands of people agree to spend, literally, decades of their lives submitting to regular medical tests to determine the long-term effects of everything from regular exercise to diet soda. As we gather data via handheld tech about who we are, what we do, and how we live, it’ll be a lot easier to take that data, analyze it, and figure out how each of us can live healthier and happier lives.

Major medical discoveries, in the end, are few and far between. What can be truly world-changing are STEM-based innovations in how data is collected and how it’s interpreted to help us stay healthy longer.