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For Cancer Patients, the Star Trek “Tricorder” Still a Dream

By Heather Millar


A couple weeks ago, my tween daughter came running out of the bathroom with a copy of the super-serious British news magazine, The Economist. Can you tell she lives with a couple of geeky-journalist parents?

“Mom!” she cried. “There’s a story in here that says they’re trying to invent a real tricorder! Isn’t that cool?!” For those among you who are not Star Trek-initiated, a “tricorder” is a sci-fi device that “Starfleet” medical officers use to diagnose everything from broken limbs to infections from alien viruses. The Economist piece outlined some pretty neat devices that may be life-changing in areas of the developing world where doctors are few and the needs are great.

Smartphone apps mobile devices already exist that can monitor your blood pressure, your blood glucose levels, even take ultrasound images or do retinal scans. Global sales of mobile health apps is predicted to rise from  8 million in 2011 to .3 billion this year, according to The Economist story.

So I wondered if there might be any apps that could help cancer patients. Might there be an app that integrates all the different diet advice for the survivors of various cancers? Maybe someone had created an app to help lung cancer patients quit smoking?

It won’t surprise you that I was completely overwhelmed by the number of health apps at the iTunes store. There were so many that it would take me weeks to analyze them all.

But as I clicked around, I discovered a couple of things: First, the FDA only has draft guidance on which mobile apps require review. So there’s not yet organized oversight of healthcare apps.

Second, I found this study from the Journal of Cancer Education. The researchers found 77 apps relevant to cancer. Seventy-seven! See what I mean about the ferment out there?

Those 77 apps were aimed at different audiences: healthcare agencies, healthcare workers, and patients. But here’s the takeaway: Only about 56 percent of these apps were backed by scientific data. And the apps aimed at consumers seemed to have less scientific backing than those aimed at medical professionals.

I’ve no doubt that in my lifetime something akin to a tricorder will become common. The “Tricorder X Prize” contest, announced last year, will no doubt help move that along. The Qualcomm Foundation, the charity arm of the technology company, is offering a million prize to the first team that can bring quality healthcare to the palm of your hand.

But it’s not here yet. So, for now, be careful of what apps you use to help monitor your health, and stay tuned!

Photo: Creatas

The opinions expressed in WebMD Second Opinion are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Second Opinion are... Expand


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