Tricorders from Star Trek were meant to be a technology set more than 200 years in the future. But thanks to the pace of advance of modern technology, it looks like they’re going to be showing up a lot earlier than that. Over the last 10 years, since the introduction of the smartphone, tremendous progress has been made towards making tricorders a reality. But rather than being clumsy-looking handheld devices on starships, today’s version is actually better than many of the writers of the original series imagined.
According to Iltifat Husain, the editor of an influential apps magazine, the rise of health apps on our smartphones is actually a good thing. He says that an online Dr app can actually improve our health and make it possible for doctors to deliver better emergency medical care. What’s more, he says that there’s not strong evidence that the use of apps in our personal lives can help improve patient compliance – something doctors have been struggling with for generations,
Husain points to two randomised controlled trials which suggest that the use of apps actually helps people to stick to tough medical regimens better. It makes it easier to remember to take tablets, go out for exercise, and heap healthy foods onto one’s plate.
But there’s a catch. The academic community is traditionally skeptical of any new device or app and its potential effect on health. Although academics tend to be liberal in their philosophical outlook, their attitude to innovation is incredibly conservative, and anything that goes against their established consensus is challenged – sometimes literally until they die and are replaced.
Husain says that this attitude in the academic community is a problem. At the moment, academics don’t believe that medical technology – or tricorders – can really make a difference to people’s health. Their attitude is that it just generates anxiety and makes people feel worse than they already do about their health. But Husain points out that there still isn’t evidence to warrant a conclusion either way. The relevant experiments just haven’t been done yet. His advice is that we shouldn’t wait/ There’s anecdotal evidence that suggests that smartphone apps are beneficial, and as far as he’s concerned, that’s reason enough to give them a go.
Perhaps the most useful application of medical apps is to generate the sort of datasets that are required by artificial intelligence to come up with new diagnoses and treatments. There;s hope that someday our smartphones will be able to anonymously upload data to the cloud, and for those data to be used by scientists to develop new treatments.
The exact timing of rises in blood glucose, for instance, could offer hope to prediabetics who are unwilling to change their diet. They could be put on preventative medical drugs to prevent their condition from deteriorating any further. The same applies to heart disease patients. Before their condition becomes critical, they could be sent for scans to check the severity and extent of their arterial plaques.