Whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably used portable diagnostic tools. Portable diagnostics include a range of devices which can diagnose or monitor disease inside and outside of healthcare settings . The devices available in this field are nearly endless, ranging from measuring the chemistry of bodily fluids to capturing immediate images of our internal organs, and options continue to expand. Some of the more common tools used by medical professionals include stethoscopes, thermometers, and point-of-care ultrasound machines. Patients commonly use at-home pregnancy tests and continuous glucose monitors, which are also considered in the broad category of ‘portable diagnostics’.
One of the more prevalent examples today is the at-home COVID test. Today, you can purchase a kit, collect a sample at home, and get your test results back in under 30 minutes. Patients get the answers they need faster than ever, increasing accessibility to critical medical information. When available, the preventative impact is powerful, but the United States still has a long way to go in regards to improving access and affordability of these tests. In the United Kingdom, residents can get at-home COVID tests for free, ensuring people of all socioeconomic classes can be protected against the virus .
COVID at-home tests demonstrate some of the many benefits associated with portable diagnostics. The speed of results is extremely useful, especially in a pandemic where information, safety measures, and prevalence of infectious diseases are constantly evolving. Access isn’t perfect, but being able to bring the tests to individuals can help reach far more people than ever before, “democratising diagnostics” for all people . These tests can have protective benefits for friends and family members in all types of situations. For example, before attending my grandmother’s outdoor birthday party this fall, every attendee took an at-home test to prevent spreading the virus and minimize risk for everyone at the gathering. In the words of The Institute of Advanced Materials, portable diagnostics are “nothing short of revolutionary” .
Another benefit is the protection portable diagnostics offer to the most high-risk patients. The American Portable Diagnostics Association states that their goal is “serving our most vulnerable citizens – the frail, elderly and disabled in long-term care facilities and in their private residences” . By keeping high-risk patients in their living situations, portable diagnostics minimize unnecessary hospital visits, limiting transportation needs and potential exposure to transmittable illnesses, a particular benefit in the time of COVID . In addition, eliminating transportation within hospital settings for trauma and intensive care patients minimizes risk and can improve patient outcomes. One example of this is the point-of-care ultrasound (PoCUS), portable machines connected to a phone or tablet with the ability to meet the patient wherever they may be.
While portable diagnostics are used to diagnose new conditions, they can also be life-changing for patients with chronic conditions who need constant information to manage their care. Continuous glucose monitoring systems for people with diabetes have made it possible to track blood sugar levels in real-time, lifting the burden of constant finger-pricks and offering continuous overnight monitoring . For patients on certain blood thinning medications, an INR (international normalized ratio) test may need to be performed multiple times a week to evaluate the clotting of the patient’s blood. Providers need this information to closely track the impact of drug levels, adjusting medication dosages as needed to provide proper care. By using a home INR test, patients can save many trips to the doctor’s office, while ensuring medical providers have the information they need . Portable diagnostics are a powerful tool for improving quality of life for all kinds of patients.
What does the future look like for portable diagnostics? One field where these tools have not yet been fully adopted is infectious disease management, particularly in the case of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The World Health Organization notes that widespread usage of “point-of-care tests [would] allow people to be screened, tested, diagnosed and treated for STIs in a single visit to a health worker, and can help to dramatically reduce the burden of disease” . However, these tests are not yet commonly used. By using rapid tests, patients and doctors would be able to get results quickly, and treatment could begin during the same visit. This would in turn limit transmission of the disease by informing patients of their status before they left the room, reducing transmission and decreasing burden of disease. Individual and societal well-being would improve, and lives would be saved . But we won’t experience the powerful positive impacts of portable diagnostics until we increase access and provide these necessary technologies to providers.
Even NASA is working on their own portable diagnostic technology. The NASA Analyzer is a hand-held device designed for “human deep-space missions such as Mars” . This single compact unit has “the ability to handle multiple sample types (breath, saliva, blood),” with results produced in mere seconds . The Star Trek Tricorder is moving from science fiction to reality. Currently, the NASA Technology Transfer Program is working on bringing this “technology down to Earth,” but it’s clear that progress is all around us.
Whether en route to Mars or in our own bedroom here on Earth, portable diagnostics are beginning to reshape our medical world. By improving speed, access, and quality of life for all patients, testing and diagnosis of disease is becoming more available and accessible for patients every day. There is still a lot of progress to be made, but the opportunities today are out of this world.
- Raza, Sobia. “Democratising Diagnostics – the Future Is Portable.” PHG Foundation, 26 July 2016, https://www.phgfoundation.org/blog/democratising-diagnostics-the-future-is-portable.
- Service, Government Digital. “Order Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Lateral Flow Tests.” GOV.UK, GOV.UK, 4 Mar. 2021, https://www.gov.uk/order-coronavirus-rapid-lateral-flow-tests.
- “Portable Diagnostics & MHealth: Institute of Advanced Materials, IAAM.” Institute Of Advanced Materials, https://iaam.se/portable-diagnostics-mhealth.
- “About APDA.” American Portable Diagnostics Association, American Portable Diagnostics Association, https://www.apdahealth.com/content.asp?contentid=183.
- Geliebter, Ari, and Rebecca Geliebter. “Choosing the Best Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) System for Type 1 Diabetes and Type 2 Diabetes.” Comprehensive Endocrinology, PC, https://comprehensiveendo.com/continuous-glucose-monitoring-systems-cgm.
- “Home INR Test.” Home, MdINR, LLC, https://www.mdinr.com/.
- “‘The Way Forward’: Quick, Accurate Tests to Diagnose Sexually Transmitted Infections.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 29 Oct. 2019, https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/stis-point-of-care-tests/en/.
- “Portable Medical Diagnosis Instrument (TOP2-246): Compact In-Flight Medical Diagnostic Technology for Deep-Space Missions.” NASA Technology Transfer Program, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, https://technology.nasa.gov/patent/TOP2-246.