Who needs Dr. Leonard McCoy’s classic (but fictional) Medical Tricorder when iPhone health is already in your pocket? (Some of it anyway.) There are various configurations of the Tricorder on the Star Trek TV show. By today’s standards, the devices were bulky, but they enabled:
On the other hand, today’s ubiquitous smartphone—including the iPhone—has a more familiar, convenient and compact form. And imaginative TV science is becoming an iPhone health reality at warp speed. And compact, digital medical science is changing both healthcare delivery and medical marketing.
One of medicine’s innovative thinkers, Eric J. Topol, MD, is well connected with the future of healthcare. In his recent book, The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine is in Your Hands, he writes:
“We are about to see a medical revolution with little mobile devices,” and in this transformation, smartphones will play a role well beyond a passive conduit. A trip to the doctor is almost a guarantee of misery.
“You'll make an appointment months in advance. You'll probably wait for several hours until you hear ‘the doctor will see you now—but only for fifteen minutes!’ Then you'll wait even longer for lab tests, the results of which you'll likely never see…and your bill will be astronomical.
“But medicine does not have to be that way. Instead, you could use your smartphone to get rapid test results from one drop of blood, monitor your vital signs both day and night, and use an artificially intelligent algorithm to receive a diagnosis without having to see a doctor, all at a small fraction of the cost imposed by our modern healthcare system.”
Move over, "Doctor Google." Apple patents in the health device are moving from patient “symptom look-up” to a self-contained, multi-purpose diagnostic and monitoring device for providers and patients.
A recent Apple patent—one of many under the health and wellness umbrella—envisions a medicalized smartphone/iPhone that rethinks the Tricorder functions and capabilities. Among the onboard functions, the “future” device embraces present-day capabilities. The operational list includes:
Many other sensors, monitoring and measuring capabilities feed the system, from elementary vital signs to sophisticated electrocardiogram (ECG) readings. (Related technology, such as the Apple Watch, Fitbit and other devices are likely to connect.)
Future healthcare marketing for doctors and providers can easily use the device as a direct connection to and from the patient. In many ways, digital marketing has been moving in that direction—providing localized information that is keyed to patient’s immediate needs.
“Part of the change is powered by what Topol calls medicine's ‘Gutenberg moment.’ Much as the printing press took learning out of the hands of a priestly class, the mobile Internet is doing the same for medicine, giving us unprecedented control over our healthcare. With smartphones in hand, we are no longer beholden to an impersonal and paternalistic system in which ‘doctor knows best.’”
Much of this remains a possible view of the future. Much of it exists, much of it seems likely, and much of it is yet to be created. The concept of iPhone health, however it is defined—is at least as believable as Star Trek’s Medical Tricorder.
There’s no doubt that the compact and Internet-enabled device that most of us already have within easy reach harbors great potential -- iPhone health. We call it an iPhone, and curiously, it is still a telephone…in case you want to call your doctor.
Eric J. Topol, MD is professor of innovative medicine and the director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California.