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On the Horizon: Virtual Reality Therapy That Treats Chronic Pain

This post by Esther Hsieh was originally published in Scientific American on 6/11/15

Strap on a headset, immerse yourself in an alternate reality and cure your pain—that’s the idea of a recent study in Psychological Science.Most people think of pain as something that happens in the body—I twist my head too far, and my neck sends a “pain signal” to the brain to indicate that the twisting hurts. In reality, pain is simply the brain telling us we are in danger. Although certain nerve endings throughout the body can indeed detect bodily harm, their signals are only one factor that the brain uses to determine if we should experience pain. Many cases of chronic pain are thought to be the result of obsolete brain associations between movement and pain.

To explore the mind’s influence over pain, Daniel Harvie, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of South Australia, and his colleagues asked 24 participants who suffer from chronic neck pain to sit in a chair while wearing virtual-reality glasses and turn their head. The displays were manipulated to make the participants think that they were turning their head more or less than they actually were.

Subjects could swivel their head 6 percent more than usual if the virtual reality made them think they were turning less, and they could rotate 7 percent less than usual when they thought they were turning more.

The findings suggest that virtual-reality therapy has the potential to retrain the brain to understand that once painful movements are now safe, extinguishing the association with danger. Harvie believes that such therapy has the potential to restore full pain-free range of motion to people recovering from injuries and could perhaps help individuals with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.

‘Instagram for doctors’ lets medics share photos to solve mystery cases

This post by Meera Senthilingam originally appeared on CNN on 2/10/15.

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The idea is at the foundation of social media channels: Seen something strange? Post it online. The desire to share the unknown, or complex, is a human urge, and no-one knows this better than doctors.

“I’m a very visual learner. Most doctors are … and we like to talk to each other,” explains third-year medical resident Sheryll Shipes of Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial, in Texas.

Last year Shipes began using Figure-1, a photo-sharing app through which healthcare professionals can share photographs and information about their patients for both learning and diagnosis purposes. “It’s now my medical guilty pleasure,” she adds.

It may ring alarm bells regarding patient confidentiality but founder Josh Landy, an intensive care specialist at Scarborough Hospital in Toronto, Canada, vows that anonymity, ethics and patient approval are at the core of the technology. He says his objective is the sharing of knowledge.

“People (already) share cases through text and email,” he says.

As a medic himself Landy understands the need to seek external opinions when treating a variety of patients. One day, when looking around his hospital unit, Landy realized how commonplace this virtual sharing was among his students as their hands were occupied not with stethoscopes, but smartphones. They were in search of a second opinion — and now they can get third, fourth and fifth opinions in a single click, with his photo-sharing app.

“We looked at how people are using their smart phones,” he explains, having seen many cases being shared between doctors using this medium. “I wanted a way to present all those cases … to create a global knowledge notebook.”

Feedback from the community

Launched in May 2013, Figure-1 enables users to take an image, remove any identifying information, and upload the image for feedback from the community of healthcare users accessing the app. Those not uploading use the app as a learning tool to expose them to conditions and symptoms they may not otherwise see. “It’s medical education,” says Landy.

In developing the app, Landy ensured anonymity would become standard through the removal of any identifying features, names, numbers or case information when images are uploaded. All images undergo additional verification before becoming publicly available and patients must also give their permission for their photos to be shared.

Whilst the general public may have interest in medical images, Landy stresses the importance of targeting mainly those working in healthcare. New users are asked for occupational information upon registering and only healthcare professionals can comment or add pictures.

The app is now available in 19 countries and as of summer 2014 there were 150,000 users, according to Figure-1. The number is expected to be higher today with images in the library being viewed on average 1.5 million times a day. The greatest popularity lies in the continent of origin, with Figure-1 now being used by 30% of U.S. medical students, including Shipes.

“It’s classic medicine, digitized,” says Shipes. Having used Figure-1 religiously over the past year, Shipes readily sings its praises after the app helped her diagnose a patient with an unusual skin disorder causing blisters on certain parts of her body. “I uploaded it to Figure-1 and someone told us exactly what it was,” she says. The condition turned out to be common to Latin America and Asia but rare in the United States. “We would never have known that one.”

Now Landy hopes word will spread even further. “It’s overdue for a tool like this,” he concludes. “I’d like to see it everywhere.”

Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed to Give Away $32 Billion

This post by   and  appeared on Bloomberg Business on July 1, 2015.

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Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has pledged to give away $32 billion over the coming years.

There is no time scale set for the donation, which represents all of his fortune, according to Alwaleed. The billionaire is the world’s 20th richest person with $30.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The gift would benefit Muslim and non-Muslim countries, Alwaleed said in a press conference in Riyadh today. It would be used for work in areas including inter-cultural understanding, disease eradication, providing power to remote areas, building orphanages and schools, disaster relief and empowering women, he said.

Since Bill Gates and Warren Buffett announced the Giving Pledge in 2010, about 200 individuals from around the world have promised to give away more than half of their fortune in life or death. Gates and Buffett are leading by example. The two richest Americans, who are worth $151 billion combined, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, have put more than $46 billion into the Gates foundation.

The Prince hoped the gift would build a “better world of tolerance, acceptance, equality and opportunity for all,” he said in a statement.

Garbage Fuel Will Power British Airways Planes

This post by Tiffany Stecker and Julia Pyper first appeared on ClimateWire  on April 25, 2014

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Come 2017, British Airways could be able to fuel flights from London’s City Airport to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on trash.
The airline has partnered with Washington, D.C.-based Solena Fuels to make 50,000 metric tons of jet fuel from municipal solid waste per year. It is the first project in the world to attempt to convert trash into a drop-in fuel for airplanes.

British Airways agreed in 2012 to buy the jet fuel from Solena per year over 11 years at “market competitive prices,” about $510 million for the price of conventional jet kerosene. Last month, the London Green Sky Project, as it’s called, found a home: a 20-acre lot east of London that was formerly the site of a large oil refinery.

Green Sky will use the existing waste collection system to pick up household trash and take advantage of the electricity infrastructure that serviced the refinery up to its closure in 2012. Solena is in negotiation with a number of local waste companies that could provide the waste for the facility, according to a British Airways spokeswoman.

The technology isn’t cheap, said Jonathon Counsell, head of environment for British Airways. About $600 million was invested to develop Solena Fuels’ gasification-Fischer-Tropsch combination technology for solid waste. But the payoff will be worth it.

“What we get from that is a very pure, high-quality fuel,” said Counsell, at the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference in National Harbor, Md., Wednesday. Turning trash into fuel yields twice the energy that incinerating the waste for electricity would provide, he added. Recent life-cycle analyses indicate that the fuel could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95 percent compared to fossil fuels, said Counsell. This doesn’t include the avoided methane emissions — a gas with 30 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide — that result from trash decomposing in a landfill.

A century-old process at work
Solena Fuels will use a combination of two technologies to make the fuel. Once the waste has been cleaned of any hazardous or recyclable materials, it will be combusted in a low-oxygen environment that produces a synthesis gas of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, a process known as gasification. The gas will then be converted to liquid fuel, in a process called Fischer-Tropsch.”When people hear that word, it seems to be like rocket science,” said Solena Fuels President and CEO Robert Do, who fined-tuned the process for organic waste. The Fischer-Tropsch process has been in use for nearly a century to turn natural gas or coal into liquid fuel. In fact, said Do, British Airways has long purchased its jet fuel from the South African energy company Sasol, which makes fuels from coal.

To start, the impact of converting British Airways’ business flights would be minuscule. Fueling the London-to-New York trips with biofuel would displace about 2 percent of British Airways’ consumption at its main hub — Heathrow Airport outside of London. But the airline expects to increase its use gradually, in compliance with a U.K. aviation industry road map that sets the goal of obtaining 30 percent of fuels from renewable sources by 2050.

Keeping the project small also helps reduce risk, said Do, an aspect that attracts project financing. Solera has similar agreements with two other airlines, Lufthansa and Qantas.

Do expects the project will serve as a prototype for similar projects around the world, where trash disposal has become a growing problem.

“Every city in the world today is experiencing difficulties in handling its waste, whether it’s New York City versus London versus Istanbul versus Hong Kong,” said Do.

Multiple ways to replace petroleum
According to Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs at the trade group Airlines for America (A4A), municipal solid waste represents a promising alternative fuel pathway for the industry. One major advantage is that the feedstock can be sourced and produced near airports, mitigating transportation and logistics costs.

In 2010, a number of U.S. airlines signed a letter of intent to work with Solena on developing fuel from waste, and they are likely to revisit that opportunity once the British Airways project gets off the ground, said Young. In the meantime, the U.S. aviation industry is working with the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, through a grant from the Department of Agriculture, to foster the development of a fuel made from municipal solid waste.

Airlines are also testing fuels from other feedstocks. Lufthansa, which in 2011 became the first airline to use biofuels in commercial flights, announced this week that it’s researching a new type of biofuel made from fermented plant waste by the U.S.-based company Gevo.

Airlines are putting alternative fuels into action, too. United Airlines, for instance, has an agreement with AltAir Fuels to run flights out of Los Angeles later this year on a commercial-scale, renewable jet fuel made from agricultural waste and nonedible natural oil products. Alaska Airlines also has a purchase agreement in place with Hawaii Bioenergy to fly on a sustainable jet fuel made from woody biomass on flights starting 2018.

In 2006, a coalition of airlines, aircraft and engine manufacturers, energy producers, researchers and U.S. government agencies formed the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) to promote the development of alternative jet fuel options. USDA, the Federal Aviation Administration, A4A and Boeing also formed the “Farm to Fly” program in 2010 to accelerate the development of commercially viable alternative fuels for aviation.

The airline industry is eager to increase its fuel options because planes simply cannot run on electricity the way cars and trucks can. Today, airlines are restricted to using petroleum-based fuel, which represents the industry’s single largest expense and a growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

‘Farm to Fly’ goes aloft
“Airlines are really focused on alternative fuels for two reasons,” said Young. “One is to provide a competitor to petroleum-based fuels for supply and price volatility reasons. On the other side is the sustainability and emissions goals that we have. Providing some amount of sustainable alternative aviation fuel is very important in meeting those.”

The global aviation sector currently accounts for about 2 percent of global emissions, but its carbon footprint is expanding quickly as demand for air travel increases. To mitigate its environmental impact, the industry has committed to improving fleet efficiency 1.5 percent per year and to achieving carbon-neutral growth from 2020.

Farm to Fly created the aspirational goal of adopting 1 billion gallons of sustainable alternative jet fuel — about 6 percent of the industry’s current annual fuel consumption — by 2018. Young said reaching that goal is a stretch, but not impossible should fuel supplies substantially increase and the price drop.

Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he applauds the aviation industry’s effort to move from fossil fuels. But he added that municipal waste isn’t necessarily an environmentally friendly feedstock.

If plastic that can be recycled or food that can be composted is being turned into fuel and burned off without recouping its additional value, those materials aren’t following an ecologically optimal disposal route, he said. And even if fuel producers do commit to recycling, will they remove only what’s economically recyclable, or what’s technically recyclable?

The composition of the waste and how it’s managed will have a significant impact on the sustainability profile of the fuel, said Hershkowitz.

“I would say there needs to be a refined understanding of the physical characteristics that are being converted into the fuel,” he said. “If those physical characteristics allow for the material to be recycled, it should be recycled. If they carry zero Btu [British thermal units], they should be landfilled. If it can’t be recycled and has Btus, then exploring the conversion into a transportation fuel makes sense.”

Adidas Creates Sneakers That Are Made Entirely from Ocean Trash

This post originally appeared on Mind Unleashed on July 2, 2015.

With Earth’s oceans being overloaded with plastic trash, engineers all over the world are making efforts to find innovative ways to remove this harmful debris from the marine environment. Thus, Boyan Slat of The Ocean Cleanup promises to launch a massive ocean cleaning system in 2016.

But what if there was also a way to give this plastic a new life and use it for further production?German footwear giant Adidas has proposed a non-trivial idea on what to do with ocean waste – to make shoes out of it, of course!

The company has created prototype of sustainable sneakers made almost entirely from ocean trash. In particular, the upper shoe is made out of illegal gill nets and other plastic debris removed from the ocean while the shoe base incorporates sustainable materials.

Collecting plastic from the ocean to knit the sneakers was not an easy task. In fact, it was done with the collaboration of the nonprofit organization Sea Shepherd, which organized a 110-day expedition to track illegal fishing boats in West African waters. The green part of the Adidas shoes is nothing but fishing nets collected in the course of this expedition.

Ocean Trash

At the same time, Adidas plans to release a line of sustainable sneakers later this year, believing that there will be no problem with finding plastic waste, such as fishing nets and beach trash, to be used in the production.

The company claims that this initiative is aimed not only to recycle ocean trash but also to help reduce and avoid the production of plastic waste. Thus, Parley for the Oceans, a new nonprofit organization founded with the support of Adidas, is developing innovative technologies to alter the structure of plastic and make it less harmful to the environment, as well as to minimize the use of plastic in production in general.

We’re going to end ocean plastic pollution only if we’re going to reinvent the material,” said Cyrill Gutsch, Parley for the Oceans founder. “Plastic doesn’t belong in nature, it doesn’t belong in the belly of a fish, it doesn’t belong out there. The ultimate solution is to cut into this ongoing stream of material that never dies, is to reinvent plastic.”

The company seeks to develop a material that would decompose safely in the environment, unlike the conventional plastic that is estimated to take more than 500 years to break down.

Ocean Trash

Adidas hopes that the use of this innovative material could eventually go beyond the production of footwear. “We don’t have to limit ourselves,” said Eric Liedtke of the Adidas Group. “We can put this in T-shirts, we can put this in shorts, we can put this in all kinds of stuff.”

Genentech, Facebook vet launches behavioral health startup Lyra Health

This post by Jonah Comstock originally appeared in MobiHealthNews on Jun 8, 2015

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Lyra Health, a startup that launched last week, will focus on addressing the gaps in the healthcare system surrounding behavioral health conditions like anxiety and depression. David Ebersman, former CFO of Facebook and Genentech, will helm the new company, which already has seed funding from Ebersman and venture capital firm Venrock. Ebersman’s co-founder, Chief Medical Officer Dena Bravata, formerly served in the same role at Castlight Health.

“Behavioral health is a really big and important problem,” Ebersman told MobiHealthNews. “The system really doesn’t work very well and because of that we have many millions of people walking around undiagnosed, millions more who are diagnosed but not getting treated, and millions more still who are being treated but with therapies that aren’t working. This is kind of the center of the problem that we’re trying to work on.”

Currently, Ebersman said, the average time between diagnosis and seeking treatment for a person with anxiety is 11 years. For depression it’s three years. Basically a primary care physician gives a referral and then the person with the behavioral health condition — who is often unmotivated as a result of the condition — is on their own to navigate a confusing path to finding a therapist or treatment that works for them.

“What we want to develop is technology that enables us to identify people who are at risk of behavioral health problems and in need of behavioral health treatments. We want to develop technology that enables us to most effectively match people with care that’s available, meets their needs, and is likely to help them,” Ebersman said, noting that the platform would likely include options like video visits and computerized therapy. “The [other] thing we want to do is to build tech that enables us to track outcomes, so that if people are being treated, we can see whether or not the treatment is working, take corrective action if not, and learn from it if it is. And apply that learning to future patients.”

Lyra Health will work with employers and health plans to address the population of people with underdiagnosed behavioral health conditions. Although Ebersman expects patients will interact with the platform through a combination of phone calls and mobile apps, the specific details of the platform are still being developed. Lyra is aggressively hiring engineers and developers.

“We view this as a really interesting and complicated technology problem and we are planning to build the company as one that taps into the best minds in terms of software engineering and data science that we can find in the fertile environment in Silicon Valley,” Ebersman said. “We’re very pleased with the initial team we’ve assembled and we want to build out the quality of the organization.”

Ebersman says health plans and employers will buy in because behavioral health problems have a large cost footprint on healthcare overall, largely because behavioral health conditions are often comorbid with chronic physical health conditions.

“If you have diabetes, you are twice as likely to suffer from depression as the general population, and if you have diabetes and depression, you on average will be three to five times more expensive than a diabetic who is not suffering from depression,” he explained. “And when you think about it, that makes pretty good sense because if you’re depressed, you’re probably less well-equipped to manage the behavioral things you have to do to manage your diabetes: diet, exercise, medication compliance, etc. And if you don’t manage those things then your diabetes will progress to the expensive complications that come later.”

Baby born from ovary frozen in mother’s childhood

This post originally appeared on the BBC on June 10, 2015

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A woman in Belgium is the first in the world to give birth to a baby using transplanted ovarian tissue frozen when she was still a child, doctors say.

The 27-year-old had an ovary removed at age 13, just before she began invasive treatment for sickle cell anaemia.

Her remaining ovary failed following the treatment, meaning she would have been unlikely to conceive without the transplant.

Experts hope that this procedure could eventually help other young patients.

The woman gave birth to a healthy boy in November 2014, and details of the case were published on Wednesday in the journal Human Reproduction.

Bone marrow transplant

The woman, who has asked to remain anonymous, was diagnosed with sickle cell anaemia at the age of five.

She emigrated from the Republic of Congo to Belgium where doctors decided her disease was so severe that she needed a bone marrow transplant using her brother’s matching tissue.

But before they could begin the bone marrow transplant, they needed to give her chemotherapy to disable her immune system and stop it from rejecting the foreign tissue.

Chemotherapy can destroy the ovarian function, so they removed her right ovary and froze tissue fragments. At that time, she was showing signs of puberty, but had not yet started her periods. Her remaining ovary failed at 15.

Ten years later, she decided she wanted to have a baby, so doctors grafted four of her thawed ovarian fragments onto her remaining ovary and 11 fragments onto other sites in her body.

Baby boy

The patient started menstruating spontaneously five months later, and became pregnant naturally at the age of 27.

The gynaecologist who led the treatment to restore the patient’s fertility, Dr Isabelle Demeestere, told the BBC the patient was very stressed during the procedure because it was her only option to have a child, but that now she “is of course very happy and is enjoying her new life”.

Dr Demeestere said it was now hoped the procedure could help other young people, especially given there is an increasing number of long-term survivors of haematological diseases diagnosed in childhood.

She said it was suitable for those who were at high risk of ovarian failure, such as survivors of treatment for lymphoma, leukaemia and sarcoma.

She said thousands of people had now undergone the procedure to freeze tissue and in Dr Demeestere’s clinic, 20% of them were children.

“However, the success of this procedure requires further investigation in very young pre-pubertal girls, as our patient had already started puberty even though she had not started menstruating,” she explained.

The risks involved

She also warned that it would only be suitable for patients at high risk of ovarian failure, because the procedure itself carries risks such as damaging the removed healthy ovary or reintroducing malignant cells at the time of transplant.

Professor Adam Balen, chairman of the British Fertility Society, welcomed the news.

“One would anticipate that young ovaries should have lots of eggs in them, the concern was whether those eggs might develop to maturity, if the ovarian tissue was taken at such a young age and frozen and then re-implanted,” he told the BBC.

“So, this is proof of that concept… it’s very important information.”

About 40 babies have already been born across the world using frozen ovarian tissue taken from older women.

A new, game-changing technology can put electronics directly into the brain

This post by GUIA DEL PRADO originally appeared in Business Insider on June 8, 2015.

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Last May, a 34-year-old paralyzed man was able to drink from a cup unaided using a robotic arm. Other surgeries have allowed the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and have staved off the debilitating symptoms of neurological illnesses like Parkinson’s.

All of these technologies are made possible by brain implants: electrical devices inserted into or attached to the brain. These implants have sensors or electrodes that can monitor activity, block or electrically stimulate processes in the neural network.

Applying these technologies to already-healthy people may even give us superpowers by enhancing our senses. Brain implants may be able to help people sharpen focus and improve moods, and external brain stimulation has already shown some success in helping people learn math faster.

But implants right now require invasive surgery, and are often made of steel or other metals that cause scarring. Brain implant technology is hampered by how long implants can stay in the brain without causing damage or losing functionality.

A game-changing implant

Now a tiny new brain implant makes two big strides in this technology: It can be injected directly into the brain from a syringe, minimizing damage to brain tissue and can be applied without invasive surgery.

Not only that, but the flexible mesh imitates the interconnecting structure of the neural network and the softness of brain tissue, and is made of materials that the immune system is less likely to reject, so it seems to create less scarring in the brain when it has been inserted.

That’s important because when the body detects one of today’s brain implants, the brain tissue surrounds the foreign object with scar tissue, causing it to malfunction. The scarring can also cause damage and neuron loss in the area where the implant sits.

The researchers described the innovation in the journal Nature Nanotechnology on June 8. They were able to inject the mesh into the brains of anesthetized mice through a tiny hole in the skull and record brain activity with electrodes and sensors on the mesh.

“If you look at implanted electronics in the brain over the past 10 to 20 years, all suffer from a common problem,” said study author Charles Lieber, of Harvard University. “Electronic probes, in research and in medicine, create scarring in brain tissues. There’s a mismatch if they’re stiff and this leads to an immune response… [they are] not stable over time.”

How it works

The incredibly small mesh implant has “very fine metal lines” of circuitry embedded, with electrodes and sensors mounted at the intersections of the wires. By curling the flexible implant, the researchers were able to fit a 1.5 centimeter wide square of mesh up into a syringe with an opening less than half a millimeter wide.

Once injected into the brain, the mesh unfolds to about 80% of its original shape without loss of function. The external wires of the mesh can then be plugged to a computer to monitor and stimulate individual neurons.

Lieber said the secret to the immune system’s acceptance of the implant is because of its flexible and open structure. Up to 95% of the mesh is open space, allowing individual neurons to communicate with adjacent neurons uninterrupted. The implant’s design was inspired by another 2012 study published in Nature Materials where Lieber was able to grow cells on a tiny mesh-like scaffold.

Lieber Research Group, Harvard UniversityThe implant can be injected into the brain from a syringe.

“The idea was this material is an open structure… which allows the three dimensional interconnection of the brain to work right, and without doing massive surgery,” he said.

The study showed that the mesh didn’t trigger an immune response in a five-week period after injection.

The future of brain implants

Lieber hopes that this mesh might someday be used in humans to treat neurological illness or brain damage caused by strokes, but said the next step is to test it for a longer period of time, maybe up to a year.

“We’re up to three months so far in this ongoing study,” he said. “There’s been no change in the response and it still has good recording behavior, unlike other devices where they either lose the signal or there is so much scarring over time that you have to move the implant’s position.”

If the implants are successful they would be a better option for people who get long-term implants to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.

This treatment, called deep brain stimulation, delivers stimulation from implants to regulate the electrical misfirings in the brain that cause these involuntary movements. But like many implants, the probes used in deep brain stimulation can trigger the development of scar tissues.

Developing long-term implants that don’t get rejected by the immune system could pave the way to using the technology for enhancement, rather than just treatment. Artist Neil Harbisson has an antenna implanted that treats his colorblindness, but it allows him to experience color in a way that no one ever has — he says he can hear it.

The implanted antenna detects colors and assigns a tone to each color, allowing Harbisson to “hear” color through bone conduction.

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Will Wei, Business InsiderNeil Harbisson is a cyborg who can hear color through his antenna.

This type of enhancement might be common in just a few more years. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is already working on brain implants that could restore memories and treat brain damage. Having a brain implant to remember facts would greatly enhance our abilities to take tests and perform everyday work.

That might be possible in the future, when tiny brain implants can give us abilities that extend beyond our biological limits. Ray Kurzweil believes we’ll able to access the internet with our minds using DNA nanobots in just 15 short years.

As brain implants shrink and become safer, that might not be such a crazy prediction.

Heal Wants To Be The ‘Uber’ For Doctors Making House Calls

This post by  originally appeared in TechCrunch on Apr 19, 2015

These days you can take yourself to the doctor or teleport the doctor to you from a mobile device. Now Heal, a startup out of Los Angeles, wants to take us back to an era of old-fashioned house calls by ‘ubering’ a doctor to your door.

We’ve written about marijuana delivery services that will ‘uber’ over a doctor to you for “insomnia” and other needs for weed, but Heal sends the traditional kind of medical doctor, complete with black bag, stethoscope and other portable, hi-tech gadgets.

Heal founder Dr. Renee Dua, a board certified kidney specialist, came up with the idea after spending a long night in the ER for her infant son’s cold. “It was awful. When your kid is sick you need a simple way to get a doctor fast,” she said. Unfortunately for Dr. Dua, there weren’t any pediatricians available at the hospital that night and she had to sit around in the uncomfortable waiting room chairs with her sick son.

That’s when the idea struck her that something else was possible. Dr. Dua knew from experience that doctors already had the tools available to make house calls for things like the cold or flu. “You’d be surprised what we have these days,” she said, rattling off items like the AlivCor ECG, a heart rate monitor that hooks up to your smartphone for readings, and the CellScope, a tool that that helps doctors diagnose ear infections from a remote location.

This is actually not an original idea. Doctors Making Housecalls, a service literally doing what the name implies, operates in certain regions of North Carolina. Pager is a startup that will send a doctor to your door in the Manhattan area of New York City. Then there’s Medicast, another Los Angeles startup that works with hospitals and established physician practices to provide scheduled house calls to patients.

screen322x572-1Heal is an on-demand service that promises to deliver a doctor to you in under an hour. It launched in the Los Angeles area late last year and is now open for business in San Francisco starting today.

It works by downloading the iOS Heal app (Android coming soon) and then ordering a doctor between the hours of 8 a.m and 8 p.m., seven days a week. A doctor should come to your door within 60 minutes.

The service is a bit pricier than a typical co-pay at the doctor’s office. Those range from $15-25 for a routine visit, but can go up to $100 for an emergency room stay, according to Debt.com. Heal costs $99 a visit for either kids or adults who want the doctor to come to them.  Dr. Dua points out that the cost of physically taking yourself to the doctor should also take into account the time, gas money and parking you may have to pay to do so.

I tested the service out myself and found it to be pretty much as straight-forward as ordering a ride from Uber or Lyft. Dr Rushi Parikh, a Stanford-trained independent medical physician showed up on the app in much the same way as a driver or delivery person would on other on-demand apps. An operations person named Mary called to verify my information while I waited and to make sure this wasn’t a medical emergency.

Dr. Parikh showed up at the cafe I was at in just under an hour. I wasn’t really sick, but I do have some minor allergies this time of year. He told me to take an over-the-counter antihistamine like Claritin. Heal offers a service that will go and pick up your medication, vitamins and whatever else you need at the pharmacy for you should you need that, too.

Dr. Parikh mentioned that eventually Heal will be able to offer other things like vaccinations and ultrasound on-demand.

It wasn’t a bad experience and it is nice that the doctor would come to where I wanted, but I do wish it wouldn’t take so long. The app didn’t tell me how long it would take Dr. Parikh to arrive, just that he should be able to get to me within an hour.

Dr. Dua said she’s working on a way to make the visits more “hyper-localized” so that doctors are closer to patients in the same way Uber drivers pick up rides within a certain area close to them. Heal said that there is a doctor close to every neighborhood in L.A. now. But the service is still pretty new to S.F. A quicker appearance will most likely require more users requesting doctors in the Bay Area.

Heal has raised $3.7 million in seed money so far from the likes of Lionel Richie, Qualcomm exec Paul Jacobs and Dodgers co-owner Jamie McCourt. Dr. Dua plans to use the funds to help Heal scale beyond just L.A. and the Bay Area in the near future.

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