Diagnosing cancer is usually done with costly machines and technicians.
But while testing a new handheld ultrasound device called early this year, vascular surgeon John Martin diagnosed his own cancer.
After feeling a fullness in his neck, Martin connected the device to his iPhone. Black and gray images of the mass popped up.
That device, roughly the size of an electric shaver, was developed by the startup Butterfly Network.
It’ll start shipping next year, and it’s much cheaper than other handheld ultrasound devices.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already cleared the device for 13 clinical applications, such as cardiac scans.
The company eventually wants to put the device in consumers’ hands.
“It lowers the cost and sophistication of screening,” Martin, the chief medical officer at Butterfly Network, told Healthline.
A quicker diagnosis allows treatment to start sooner.
“Any day saved is a valuable one,” he said.
Ultimately, the device could become as commonplace as the household thermometer, Martin has been quoted as saying.
As technology becomes more sophisticated, new tools like the Butterfly iQ are quickly emerging.
The upshot is that the empowered patient can increasingly self-diagnose.
Some of the tools, such as ultrasound devices, are more helpful than others, though, say experts.
“Catching diseases earlier when people aren’t going to a doctor is exciting,” Kristin Pothier, global head of the life sciences strategy at Parthenon-EY and author of “Personalizing Precision Medicine: A Global Voyage from Vision to Reality,” told Healthline.
Men, for example, could find a suspicious mole and get a preliminary diagnosis.
The device’s possibilities
The handheld Butterfly iQ costs about $2,000.
It uses a different technology that’s essentially an ultrasound on a chip.
It shoots ultrasonic waves into the body, rather than using a vibrating crystal.
Two-thirds of the world lacks access to imaging, Martin said.
In the future, the company wants to develop even more sophisticated and cheaper versions for as little as $500.
There are also plans to offer patches that monitor patients, or pills that scout out cancer in the body.
Using artificial intelligence, the device could guide consumers through their own diagnosis, too.
“The device will teach a less sophisticated user,” explained Martin. “It will guide you to capture the right images and interpret them.”
“Almost 50 percent of chronic diseases can be monitored at home,” he added. “Images are sent to doctors.”
Some cautionary notes
Not everyone sees the device as a game-changer, though.
Dr. Torben Becker, an emergency room physician at the University of Florida hospital, sees the device as evolutionary — not revolutionary — if it holds true to its promise.
“It’s much cheaper to produce than traditional ultrasound,” he told Healthline.
Becker adds, however, that the stethoscope is 100 years old, and new tools are needed.
Diagnostic apps have had their share of flops.
Some apps have made overly rosy promises to diagnose cancer.
In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission on a couple phone apps called Mole Detective and MelApp. They claimed to detect melanoma, a type of skin cancer, by analyzing photos taken by users.
“I haven’t seen an app that lets you definitively diagnose illnesses,” Pothier said. “If we could make it work, it would be fantastic.”
Misdiagnosing a concern
Still, these are early days for diagnostic tools aimed at the empowered patient.
Experts do worry about misdiagnosing more complex diseases.
“Cancer is difficult to capture,” Becker said. “They’re all so different, and there isn’t one pathway. And ultrasound isn’t typically fully diagnostic.”
“If you’re not an ultrasound technician,” she said, “you may not know how to use the iPhone to do this.”
Locating breast cancer with 3-D mammography is high-level technology, Pothier added.
“The idea of a consumer rolling a phone around on her breast to find a lump could freak someone out,” she said.
For example, medical misinformation on the internet is rife, she said. There’s even a phenomenon called cyberchondria, which is web-enabled hypochondria.
Having a physician onboard a medical startup is a plus, though.
“If there isn’t, that’s a big red flag,” Pothier said.
Meanwhile, Martin would rather worry that some people may misdiagnose a disease rather than waiting much later for a diagnosis.
“We all have to have a cautiously optimistic eye,” said Martin. “I want to keep one foot in today and one in tomorrow.”