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A Gadget that Makes You the Doctor

Scanadu hopes its tricorder-like device and a smartphone will help people track their health and diagnose problems.
November 30, 2012

For most of us, checking our health or diagnosing an illness means a trip to the doctor’s office. For Walter De Brouwer, it involves holding a little square up to his temple or spitting onto the edge of a blue plastic square, snapping a photo with his iPhone, and then reading his diagnosis on the small, glowing screen.

Point and scan: A non-working model of Scanadu’s Scout, expected to go on sale by the end of next year for about $150, can scan for a number of vital signs, including temperature and heart rate.

De Brouwer is the founder and CEO of Scanadu, a company that plans to sell a consumer-geared gadget that, along with a smartphone, tracks vital signs like blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate. If the device sounds a bit like the fictional tricorder from Star Trek, it should: Scanadu’s team is among those competing in the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, a multiyear, $10 million challenge to build such a device for the health-care field.

Scanadu announced Thursday that it plans to start selling this first device—the Scout, which monitors heart rate, temperature, blood oxygenation, and other vital signs—by the end of 2013, as well as a disposable urine-analysis test that can swiftly detect pregnancy issues, urinary tract infections, and kidney problems, and a saliva analysis test that can detect upper respiratory problems like strep throat and the flu. The Scout will cost less than $150, De Brouwer says; he doesn’t put a price tag on the disposable tests but says they will be “very, very cheap.”

The Scout may appeal to the growing quantified-self community, which focuses on tracking everything from sleep to stress levels (see “The Measured Life”) and includes some well-known figures such as the mathematician and entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram (who is also a member of Scanadu’s board).

The inspiration behind Scanadu came from a long hospital stay. De Brouwer’s son received a traumatic brain injury in 2006 after falling out of a window, and De Brouwer and his wife spent much of that year in the hospital with him. De Brouwer, a tech entrepreneur and onetime personal computer magazine publisher, started learning about the functions of various medical machines surrounding him.

During a recent demonstration in San Francisco, De Brouwer held a prototype of the Scout—a device about the size of an Apple laptop adapter—up to his temple.

The side of it touching De Brouwer’s head included electrodes and an infrared thermometer. He held it with his thumb and forefinger, one finger on another electrode and the other on a PPG (photoplethysmography) scanner, which measured blood flow. The difference in time between the PPG measurement and a user’s electrical heart rate can be used to calculate blood pressure, according to Alan Greene, Scanadu’s chief medical officer.

Data gathered by the Scout was transferred via low-power Bluetooth to an iPhone held in De Brouwer’s other hand. After about 10 seconds of scanning and analysis by Scanadu’s software, the iPhone shared information about his pulse, temperature, and more. He expects people to scan themselves once daily.

Eventually, the company hopes the Scout is simply integrated into smartphones and other devices, allowing for what De Brouwer calls “passive collection” of information.

De Brouwer and Greene also showed two different skinny blue disposable plastic test kits. A user would spit or urinate on the appropriate one, then snap a photo of a QR code on the test and of a small display area on the test to get results and, if an illness is detected, recommended treatments, the location of the nearest pharmacy, and an indication of how many other people in the area have the same illness.

The smartphone app—currently just for iPhone, though an Android version is in development—will keep a record of your vital signs and data from any Scanadu test you take.

But the company may face skepticism from doctors, as well as from consumers, who are used to consulting a medical professional about an illness.

Ki Chon, a professor and head of the biomedical engineering department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who has built software that can derive vital signs using a smartphone’s built-in camera, says Scanadu’s device sounds useful, but only if the results are accurate.

Leslie Saxon, chief of the University of Southern California’s division of cardiovascular medicine and the executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing, says that to ensure accuracy, the product will need clinical testing. She’s enthusiastic about Scanadu’s possibilities, though, saying it could help patients take a more active role in the health-care process and improve treatment of undertreated problems like hypertension.

In hopes of stanching skepticism and making potential users feel comfortable with the idea of home diagnosis and self-tracking, Scanadu is seeking approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The company is also talking to several hospitals about setting up a clinical trial with its device.

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