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IEEE PULSE: A Doctor in the Palm of Your Hand

Basil Harris


David Chandler | March 13, 2014

Suppose you were out on a small boat, 100 mi from shore, with a few friends. Suddenly, one of them begins coughing hard and complaining of aches and pains and chills. It could just be the start of a bad cold, but he also seems to be running a fever, which might signal the onset of the flu. But it could also be something more serious, like bacterial pneumonia, that might require hospital care. How would you know?

These days, you’d probably err on the side of caution and head for shore. But in the world of science fiction, you’d whip out an all-purpose diagnostic device like the well-known tricorder from Star Trek, you’d wave it over the patient, and, in a few seconds, you’d get a definitive diagnosis and maybe even some kind of treatment. If only life were really like that.

Amazingly, many aspects of that kind of all-purpose diagnostic tool have already begun to appear, piecemeal, mostly in the lab but in a few cases on the market. And suddenly it’s not quite so far-fetched to imagine integrating all of the tests that do exist, and pushing forward the ones that so far do not, into a portable package that anybody—not just a Starfleet doctor—could use to evaluate a medical emergency, make a clear diagnosis, and recommend a course of action. What once seemed like fantasy or the stuff of magic may not actually be so far away.