Tech-ing diagnostics forward: Connected, AI-driven wearables could mean greater access

In October last year, US-based Butterfly Network launched the second iteration of its portable ultrasound-on-a-chip, which resembles a razor.

The diagnostics space is seeing a decisive shift in terms of the underlying technology, towards greater incorporation of digital, artificial intelligence and data analytics. There is also a push towards wearables and connected devices. All this is likely to drive up access—a wearable transmitting a person’s vital parameters to a doctor many thousands of kilometres away in real-time, a device already processing some of the readings and making a preliminary report for the doctor to ratify, etc, are not too hard to imagine now.

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While, at present, two-thirds of the world’s population doesn’t have access to diagnostic care, some of the technologies and devices that have come up in the last few years can certainly help bridge this gap. In October last year, US-based Butterfly Network launched the second iteration of its portable ultrasound-on-a-chip, which resembles a razor.

The device can be connected to any smartphone to generate and relay ultrasound images. While the previous iteration cleared by the FDA in 2017 could conduct 13 tests, the new one incorporates more AI capabilities and can perform 17 different functions. Priced at $2,000 (Rs 1.5 lakh), the device is available in 20 countries with a monthly subscription of as low as $35 (Rs 2,800). By 2023, the company hopes to launch a wearable that can allow diagnosis at home.
Butterfly’s device is just one end of the spectrum. Apple, last year, launched its watch that could read blood-oxygen levels. Three years ago, the company got FDA approval for ECG monitoring using its watch. Samsung, too, has been able to leverage its innovation for a watch that comes with blood pressure monitoring; the watch has been approved by the South Korean drug regulator. Apple has also successfully got a patent in the US for wearable blood pressure measuring technology. The digital and devices bellwether has also tied up with top medical institutes to launch large-scale studies to see how wearables can contribute to better health outcomes.

While India does not have much to show in terms of wearables, a few start-ups have created low-cost, portable devices addressing unmet healthcare needs. Last year, mobile-ventilator company AgVa was in the news for coming up with a low-cost, portable ventilator system. InnAccel Technologies has readied a device called Saans, a battery-powered Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) system that could increase the survival rate of premature babies who require respiration support.

Niramai has developed a technology which can help detect breast cancer using thermal analytics. Janitri has simplified the cardiotocography process, which involves a bulky machine, using a patch and a mobile app; it has managed to bring costs down by over 60%. However, in all such efforts, government support will be key.

While Covid-19 did force governments to turn to start-ups for exploring solutions, there is a need to deepen the partnership and do this on a routine basis. A government looking at expanding healthcare coverage must lay down ways for companies like Apple, Niramai to collaborate with hospitals.

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