In 2005, Walter De Brouwer’s five-year-old son was rushed to the hospital with a severe head injury after falling more than 30 feet out of a window. In the three months that his son spent in the intensive care unit, De Brouwer, a Belgian tech entrepreneur transplanted to Silicon Valley, took to learning the myriad hospital machinery that tracked his son’s vital signs. He began bringing his laptop to the hospital, copying the reams of data into an Excel spreadsheet to study the relationship between his son’s blood pressure and heart rate, or the way his condition seemed to decline around the same time each night.
When his son was well enough to be discharged to a regular hospital room, De Brouwer panicked. “I knew this environment and these numbers and then I had to go to a room with no numbers, not even a computer,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why do I only have a thermometer at home?’ Perhaps we should know more about our health before it gets bad.”
The experience gave him the idea for the Scanadu Scout, a futuristic palm-sized device that can monitor five different vital signs, including temperature, heart rate and blood oxygenation level, by just holding it to your temple for 10 seconds. It then transmits the results wirelessly to your smartphone so you can track your health information over time, seeing, for instance, if a certain medication makes your heart rate climb, or what’s going on inside your body on those nights when you can’t fall asleep.
Pending approval by U.S. regulators, De Brouwer hopes to have the Scout on the market at the end of the year for $150. Getting regulatory approval to sell the device in Canada is the next logical extension, he says.
The company offers the promise of “sending your smartphone to med school” in recognition of the fact that today’s smartphones, with their powerful processors and high-speed Internet connections, have the potential to become pocket-sized, wireless diagnostic machines. That idea, says De Brouwer, is already having a profound effect on medicine. “In the next three to four years a big part of preventative medicine will be taken up by the Internet of things around us, which will communicate with our phone,” he says. “When we have an accident and people rush to us they won’t be coming to feel our bodies, but to look at our phone.”
Scanadu is developing disposable test strips that can be scanned at home by your phone to analyze saliva for different strains of the flu or strep throat, or to check urine samples for urinary tract infections, renal failure or complications from pregnancy.
De Brouwer is hardly the only Silicon Valley entrepreneur working to revolutionize the doctor-patient relationship. There are now as many as 18,000 medical apps aimed at consumers that promise to diagnose illness, suggest appropriate treatment or monitor a patient’s health status. While they range from free programs based on pseudo-science, to apps designed by some of the continent’s top medical research universities, all are part of a broader movement to fundamentally shift power away from doctors and into the hands of patients themselves.
Even as technology is opening new opportunities for medicine, it is also creating new dangers. As is the case with flesh and blood doctors, the diagnosis is only as good as the app or device you’re using. With regulators struggling to keep up with the hundreds of new health-related apps uploaded to the Internet daily, it means personal health care is becoming something of a Wild West frontier. But it also means the days of relying on your family doctor to figure out what’s wrong with you—a diagnostic process virtually unchanged for generations—are quickly coming to an end.
Consumer devices that track your vital signs have long been popular among amateur and professional athletes who use heart-rate monitors and GPS-enabled wristbands that measure speed and distance travelled during training. But as the technology has evolved, it has also attracted those with chronic health conditions. These “e-patients” are part of a more wide-ranging shift in the health care system driven by consumers themselves.
“If you were to pick one thing to correlate with how good a doctor is going to be, a pretty good pick is how many cases of a particular condition and a particular treatment they have seen,” says Sean Ahrens, a San Francisco-based software engineer. “What if there was a doctor who could see a million patients, or every single case in the world? It’s impossible for a human to do that, but maybe software can pull off that feat.”
After suffering a painful flare-up of Crohn’s disease, an incurable chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, Ahrens did what millions of people do every day: he went online in search of help.