How Seemingly Absurd Fiction Can Radically Change Healthcare


Albert Einstein once said: ‘if at first the idea is not absurd, then there will be no hope for it’. How is this related to healthcare innovation? You may wonder. I assume some of you still remember Star Trek. In the series a “medical tricorder” is used to scan patients, effectively displaying what is wrong with the patient and suggesting the ideal cure for the ailment at hand. Imagine a patient today could own and use the very same device to diagnose themselves. Lance Laytner writes in his review on Edit International that the creators of the cellular phone, personal computer, the MRI scanner and also NASA engineers and scientists, all acknowledge the role Star Trek played in the birth of these technological advances. So it is no wonder that somebody happened to be inspired by the medical tricorder concept. The tricorder is a multifunctional hand-held device. It is used by 23rd century doctors for sensor scanning, data analysis and to help diagnose diseases and collect physical information about a patient. For anyone who would have previously labeled the idea as absurd, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE shows that it is indeed possible. The Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is a $10 million global competition to stimulate innovation and integration of precision diagnostic technologies. Dr. Peter H. Diamandis’s XPRIZE Foundation has collaborated with the Qualcomm Foundation and has conceived this recipe for success. The competition started in January 2012 and the final award ceremony will be held in mid 2015. At MedCrunch we are particularly interested in how the competition is developing and teams are progressing. We want to know if it is actually possible to disrupt healthcare by challenging the system with an absurd, yet brilliant concept.

The radicalism of change, is one that moves from the classically described doctor-patient relationship to a patient-doctor relationship

Dr. Erik Viirre’sm medical director for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE

We had the pleasure of talking to Dr. Erik Viirre, technical and medical director for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE. My initial discussion with him was around impact and disruptive change in healthcare. Dr. Erik Viirre said this disruption is not about inventing high-tech tools that are too farfetched, too brilliant and complex for anyone to benefit from them. But it is still important to look beyond our current horizons. The real challenge is disruptive healthcare innovation that can free the patient from their Klingon prison planet of unawareness, enabling self-responsibility that in the end gets the whole planet earth moving differently. However, coming up with a brilliant concept is not the whole story. Implementation, testing, validation and application of the planned product are likely to be more expensive than is expected. In this scenario the XPRIZE competition acts as a great enabler and the prize money comes in handy too. Additionally the everyday potential user wants the product to be safe to use.  Therefore, Dr. Erik Viirre explains, an official partnership agreement with the FDA has been signed. In his mind the winner will create a solution that is not only accepted but used, persistently used.

The radicalism of change described by Dr. Erik Viirre’s is one that moves from the classical doctor-patient relationship to a patient-doctor relationship. In practical terms the patient will drive this change through a handheld device.

However, the envisioned 23rd century doctor won’t be replaced by the patients and their self-diagnostic tools. The  doctor will remain the necessary human element in the equation of care. Helping to understand the context of diseases, armed with smart technology. The idea is simply  to have patients asking more valuable questions. Dr. Erik Viirre says “it isn’t the aim to send everybody to medical school but to help people to learn what they really need to know about themselves and their environment. To take action that results in better health and disease prevention.

MedCrunch: The competition is designed to address the inefficient, expensive and inertia-bound healthcare system in the United States and elsewhere, a big task. What are the main metrics that you apply to measure that the competing  teams are on the right track and likely to be successful in solving the biggest problems in healthcare?

Dr. Erik Viirre: The main metrics that would tell us that team is being successful will be:

–      early adoption of their technology by organized providers of health care such as private or government insurance programs in the US or internationally

–      Increasing discussion in mainstream medicine venues

–      viral adoption by people

–      In the long run, ongoing and increasing penetration and use of mobile health systems

MedCrunch: What in terms of technology, particularly high-tech does it take to win the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition?

Dr. Erik Viirre: A great deal of tech is needed such as, Lab-on-a-chip technologies, the miniaturization (or scaling) of technologies commonly found in a clinical laboratory or artificial Intelligence and cloud computing to provide sophisticated analysis of individual data sets and networks of systems. However, most important will be an element that sometimes isn’t considered “high tech”: User-centered design. The simplest appearing and smoothest operating interfaces are also often the most sophisticated. User-centered design is the linchpin of “smart phone” technologies, and it will be the same for mobile health systems. Users must be able to operate, understand and most importantly, want to use their mobile health systems. Careful design, testing and re-testing will be what is needed to make mobile health successful.

MedCrunch: As an expert, how would define radical change and success in healthcare. How radical is “good” or “bad” and how would you embrace the terms “impact” and “value” in your definition.

Dr. Erik Viirre: Radical impact and success means better health care: Prevention of preventable diseases, better management of existing conditions, better awareness in the public of their health status and medical information, and better quality of life!

MedCrunch: Can you give us one example of an area in healthcare in which you think genuine and extraordinary impact can be achieved?

Dr. Erik Viirre: Full quality medical laboratory testing in the home or at a storefront will be huge. Lower cost will mean more frequent screening and monitoring. By having low or no-cost convenient (or invisible) laboratory testing (what if your toilet tested you every day), continuous trends instead of infrequent snapshots will pick up problems earlier and determine how daily factors such as stress, diet or sleep influence health conditions.

MedCrunch: The Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is a catalyst for 21st century healthcare innovation leveraging the abilities of 21st century technology. Tell us how the partnership works between the XPRIZE foundation and Qualcomm. Where do you see the strongest synergies and what are the ultimate goals of the partnership.

Dr. Erik Viirre: The Qualcomm Foundation is a wonderful partner for XPRIZE. Their goal is to enhance communities and stimulate development of mobile technologies. Wireless communications has been the biggest, most rapid technology dissemination in history. Extending the delivery of data, including medical data beyond voice communications will be a similar revolution.

MedCrunch: How much of a Star-Trek fan are you ?

Dr. Erik Viirre: Huge! I really respect Dr. McCoy, but I always wanted to be Captain Kirk.

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Ben Heubl is a Health 2.0 advocate and an expert in the innovation business consulting arena of this industry. His main interest is how to use technology to make an impact for patients and hereby targeting the intersection between entrepreneurship, open innovation, technology and large corporations. Ben co-organized TEDMEDlive Bologna and is TEDMED delegate, is non-for-profit founder of Health 2.0 Copenhagen, Medstartr (EU division) and MyHealthInnovationBlog. Meanwhile he is a mentor at HealthXL, works with ICG and supports KairosSociety and its student's engagements in healthcare innovation. You can follow him on Twitter (@benheubl)