Check Your Vitals on Your Smartphone

Walter De Brouwer wants to get inside your medicine cabinet. According to the founder and CEO of the medical startup Scanadu, there’s a big market opportunity in there.

“When you look at the numbers, the only medical tool for at-home use that really sells is the thermometer,” he told me in a recent phone interview. So Scanadu has designed what is essentially a super-smart thermometer. The Scanadu Scout, expected to hit market in late 2013 and sell for less than US $150, allows a user to quickly measure six physiological parameters—temperature, respiratory rate, blood oxygenation, blood pressure, heart rate, and electrical heart activity—and send all that info to a smartphone via Bluetooth.

“These parameters are called the vital signs, and they test them in every emergency room in the world,” explains De Brouwer. “You have a complete emergency room in your smart phone.” The Scout takes all these readings with one small sensor-studded device that the user holds against his temple for about 10 seconds. 

Scanadu announced the Scout on Thursday, and says it's now ready for manufacturing. The Scout is the latest device to seek customers in the “quantified self” movement: the growing tribe of fitness enthusiasts, dieters, and data geeks who use clip-on devices to track things like exercise and sleep. All these quantified self tools send info to a website or a smartphone, where the consumer can analyze the data over time and measure progress towards his or her goals.

De Brouwer says the Scout will be used in a similar way, and says the data produced will be “meaningful and actionable.” It can change consumers’ conversations with their doctors, he says. “With our device, it takes 10 seconds to diagnose yourself, and you have all these parameters,” he told me. “After a couple of months, you have all this data about yourself, and you can do analytics. Then you can take the data to your doctor and say, ‘This is my average blood pressure. But here I can see it going wrong, because I started taking this new medicine, or I started sleeping less.’”  

His use of the word “diagnose” there was a bit of a slip-up, because officially, the Scout is not a medical device, and it’s not meant to be used for diagnosis. That would require a type of FDA approval that Scanadu wants nothing to do with. So later in our conversation, De Brouwer stressed that the Scout isn’t actually a medical device; it’s an educational device. “We do not provide a diagnosis, we are just opening up that diagnostic space to consumers, so they can try it out themselves,” he says. In other words, the Scout won’t tell you if there’s something wrong with you, and it won’t suggest any remedies. It will simply tell you that your temperature is 103 degrees and your respiratory rate is high, and leave it to you to figure out if such readings are a sign of trouble.

The Scout is the company’s first step. Scanadu also plans to sell several add-ons for fluid analysis: One disposable cartridge will allow for urine analysis; another will test saliva for the flu virus. The company will also compete for the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, a $10 million award to whoever can build a device that resembles the Tricorder used in Star Trek’s medical clinic. To win the prize, the device must be able to measure key health metrics and diagnose a set of 15 diseases. De Brouwer thinks the Scout will be a good step in that direction. “We’re building this Tricorder from the bottom up,” he says.  

For more on Scanadu's vision of the future, check out their aspirational video below.

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