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With sensors, apps & data, my smartphone is (almost) my doctor

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If you think the Jawbone Up and Nike FuelBand are changing our perception of personal health, then wait until you see what Scanadu, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company, has planned for you. The two-year-old old company is the brainchild of Walter de Brouwer, a Belgian-born serial entrepreneur (EUnet-Quest and Star Lab) and member of TED, who in the recent past worked with Nicholas Negroponte on the One Laptop Per Child project.

Walter de Brouwer, founder (left) with Dr. Alan Greene, chief medical officer of Scanadu.

His team of a dozen-odd people, including biologists, chemists, data scientists and semiconductor engineers, is planning to develop a series of personalized health products that want to capitalize on the rapidly falling prices of sensors and other technologies and combine them with data and easy to use smartphone apps.

The inspiration for the company, de Brouwer said, came from the time he spent taking care of his son in a hospital. That experience made him realize that people need access to more information about their own health in an easy-to-understand manner. “What I was looking to do was build a tricorder to scan and get all the relevant medical data,” he joked during a conversation.

Of course, the smartphone boom happened. That marriage of cloud-based data analytics, simple to use apps and falling prices of sensors made the idea of a tricorder seem attainable. In fact, de Brouwer’s tricoder dream matches up with smartphone chipmaker Qualcomm, which launched the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize earlier this year. It wants scientists and developers to figure out a handheld device that can diagnose 15 medical ailments based on sensors in the device.

De Brouwer’s idea was enough to raise a few million dollars from his deep pocketed friends and since then, his crew has come up Scanadu Scout, a square shaped device. that can be held next to the left temple when holding it with thumb and the index finger of the left thumb. The device communicates with your iPhone via bluetooth and a few seconds later you get a readout of your vitals such as heart rate, level of oxygen in your blood, pulse and body temperature.

It is one of the many devices the company plans to build, de Brouwer said. In addition to Scanadu Scout, the company is working on two more devices — one that you be used for a urine test and another  that can help you identify if you have flu. All of these devices have been built with off the shelf components, de Brouwer said. The secret sauce for the company is its algorithms, he added.

Scanadu Scout designed by fuseProject.

Dr. Alan Greene, who is the chief medical officer of Scanadu, points out that the when it comes to medicine and information, the center of gravity has shifted from hospitals to outpatient centers to homes. And with smartphone, it is going to move to individuals. The healthcare system isn’t really changing with the times fast enough, he added. “What we want to do is give people access to better data about themselves so they can engage with their physicians better,” Dr. Greene said.

As someone who lives with a medical condition, I can say Scanadu Scout will be part of my life the minute the Food and Drug Administration approves it and the company starts selling this device at my Walgreens. Today, I travel with a blood pressure machine. I spent a lot of time trying to measure my pulse and figuring out my heart rate. The convenience of getting all that information with one scanner and have it analyzed over a period of time is worth the price – whatever it might be.

10 Responses to “With sensors, apps & data, my smartphone is (almost) my doctor”

  1. I use a digital scale with wifi that records my weight, BMI, etc. and keeps data in cloud as well as on devices. It has been very helpful keeping for obvious reasons. I also have a BP monitor that plugs into iPhone (from same company) and can send that data to doc, cloud, etc. In my experience, the only way to lose weight is to log it, and the only way to see if meds are working is to log vitals. Great stuff.

  2. Om, this is going to be really great but I suspect the monitoring will be most useful for basic vital signs like b.p., pulse, heart rhythm, etc. Some things are more complex and still require a doctor for examination (until we get robots that are remote controlled and have very good sensors), for example if a neurologist is performing an exam that requires some specialized equipment. Also, let the world know when these guys can bring personalized in-the-home MRI machines to the masses!

    • Eddie

      As a patient who deals with many medical issues, these basic data sets actually are enough to make smart decisions about life and what to do on a daily basis for me. I do so manually currently and I can totally see the promise of these type of devices. I think we have barely scratched the surface.

  3. This is the exact reason why hospitals are suddenly investing in SOA and enterprise service bus technology. Just around the corner waits consumerization of the annual physical (and maybe through mobile devices, it isn’t annual but whenever necessary based on health condition).

    Healthcare is moving rapidly into digitization, making all of this possible, thanks to money spent in 2009 to stem the disintegrating economy. The American Recovery Act created carrots and sticks that push healthcare to digitize, making our iPhones extensions of our doctors. Amazing.

    This gives us stories like Mercy Health in St Louis, where they are doing early warning of sepsis throughout their hospitals, a practice that can easily become many other early warning abilities:

  4. Also reminds me of this trend, that today, most of healthcare is “after the event happens” can soon change to “as the event is happening” – tracking the changing parameters in the body and predicting events would be huge.