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Another Voice: Data revolution is driving medical breakthroughs

By Greg Slabodkin

Growing up in the 1970s, I was fascinated by the science fiction television show “Star Trek” and its amazing futuristic technologies that seemed so fantastical and out of earthly reach. No tech gadget on the TV series captured my attention more than the tricorder, a portable hand-held device used to take vital health measurements and to diagnose medical conditions within seconds.

Fast forward to the early 21st century, and such a tool being in the hands of not just doctors but consumers doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. With the advent of smartphones and sensors, the concept of a medical tricorder that can instantly assess a person’s state of health by leveraging an app running on ubiquitous mobile devices is a technology whose time has come.

Moore’s law is accelerating and revolutionizing medicine in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. The digitization of health care and the abundance of data from electronic health records, genomics and wearable technology, as well as the means to exploit that information through analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, are driving medical breakthroughs.

At the heart of this digital revolution is a fundamental shift in who accesses and “owns” health data, a transfer of power from doctors to consumers, according to Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute. Just as the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press spread literature to the masses, Topol contends that smartphones will serve to “democratize” medicine by giving consumers control of their health data, which has historically been the domain of physicians.

In the not-too-distant future, he envisions consumers armed with mobile devices gathering data from wearable sensors to prevent disease and treat health conditions and serving the role of a digital medical assistant or coach.

“They will do most of the routine lab tests through the smartphone, some interesting imaging capabilities, and almost all of the physical exam through attachments to the smartphone,” said Topol. “In a tiny droplet of blood there’s a lot of information. It’s not just blood. It could be sweat, urine, and breath.” In addition, he predicted that there are going to be pocket DNA sequencers the size of a flash drive that people will use. “They already exist today.”

Last year, two technology teams competing for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize were awarded $2.6 million and $1 million, respectively, for developing such consumer-focused, mobile diagnostic devices. In the words of the competition organizers, they “nearly met the challenging audacious benchmarks” of diagnosing 13 diseases and in the process “taking humanity one step closer to realizing Gene Roddenberry’s 23rd century sci-fi vision.”

Health information technology has just begun to scratch the surface of transforming health care. The medical tricorder of “Star Trek” fame is just the prelude for what is possible, not in the hands of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy but consumers like you and me.

Greg Slabodkin, of Niagara Falls, is managing editor of the trade publication Health Data Management.

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