In 2013, technology permeated health care like never before. Diagnostics came to our smartphones, robots came to our surgery rooms, and Dr. Phil invested in a startup that wants to facilitate online doctors' visits.
Here are four groundbreaking medical tools that either hit shelves or revved up development this year:
A smartphone case that can charge your phone is handy, but a smartphone case that can record and transmit an ECG takes the cake. This spring, the FDA approved AliveCor, a black case with silver censors, for over-the-counter sales. The tool helps users monitor their heart palpitations by simply placing her fingers over the censors, then transmitting the recording to a doctor.
This has several benefits. First, any patient experiencing the kind of random heart arrhythmia they can't self-induce in a doctor's office can simply buy one, record when the irregularity occurs, and send the data to a doctor. After a doctor diagnoses the problem and writes a prescription, the device can also serve to gather information about how a prescription is working.
A third benefit: AliveCor can help reassure a patient with a harmless or even phantom murmur that nothing is wrong — making life a little easier for hypochondriacs and their doctors.
This one is especially beneficial for physicians who work with children, and therefore parents.
The tool is essentially a camera-fitted Otoscope (that flashlight thing doctors stick in your ear during a physical) that attaches to a smartphone. The doctor can view the inside of a patient's ear, take photos of an ear drum, and store those photos for later use. Then, when a patient has an ear ache, the doctor can compare the photos taken during a healthy physical with the new photos to both make a diagnosis, and help parents understand what's going on inside their children's ears.
If the CellScope Oto becomes available to parents, they could perform ear exams on their children and send the photos to a doctor. This could help them avoid unnecessary doctor's visits, where the kids risk picking up a bug in a waiting room.
The anesthesiologist robot
Anesthesiologists, some of the highest paid doctors, are responsible for administering sedation and keeping a patient ticking during surgeries. This year, Johnson & Johnson released what some are calling a robot anesthesiologist — a system named Sedasys that "automates the sedation of many patients undergoing colon-cancer screenings called colonoscopies," says The Wall Street Journal.
Anesthesiologists see big problems with the bots, warning they may not be able to respond accurately to complications. But tests so far show the machines are not only safe, but may even reduce the risk of over-sedation. And hospitals see a clear benefit: Cost. J&J will lease the machines to doctor's offices for about $150 per procedure, compared to the $600 to $2,000 that anesthesiologists typically charge.
This year, a Silicon Valley startup drew funding to develop a device fit for Spock: A small tricorder shaped like a hockey puck that can monitor all kinds of vital signs. By holding it up to the temple, a patient can monitor her heart rate, temperature, and respiratory rate as well as measure oxygen levels in blood, and run an electrocardiogram.
This could be a kind of holy grail of telemedicine — something that allows patients to communicate a lot of health data quickly and remotely to their doctors.
Again, this could help nervous types avoid unnecessary emergency visits, and allow doctors to urge those in trouble to go to the emergency room stat. Scanadu hopes to have it set and ready to ship by early 2015.