Doctor to Sickbay! Medical Emergency!

By Jon Sung | Stardate 68593.6 | Earthdate 01.01.1970

What’s the one piece of medical equipment that every Starfleet officer in uniform carries? Hint: it’s not a hypospray, a dermal regenerator, or even a tricorder.

It’s a Starfleet combadge.

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Suppose you’re on an away team and one of your fellow officers accidently inhales a lungful of methane, but you didn’t bring a doctor with you. How do you alert your crewmates back onboard the ship and get them to beam her down? Or what if you are the doctor, you’re already planetside, and the situation is beyond anything you can do with your handheld medical kit? How do you get yourself transported directly to sickbay with your patient? Without something as basic as a standard-issue Starfleet combadge, nobody’s going anywhere.

Around the fall of 2014, much was made of the public launch of OnBeep, now called Orion Labs, and their announced intent to make a device that would work much like the combadge we know and love circa 2364 (or stardate 41153 if you prefer). But did you know there’s a company that already makes one? And what’s more, it’s already in use in hospitals.

The Vocera B3000n Communication Badge clips to your clothes and uses Wi-Fi to make possible all the interactions we’ve seen a thousand times on every Federation starship and installation.

  • One-to-one. For those times when you just want to talk to one person: “LaForge to Lieutenant Barclay,” or “Call Dr. Flochs.”
  • One-to-many. Sometimes you want to talk to a group of people all at once: “Worf to Security!” or “Call the OR turnover team.”
  • Location. When there’s someone on staff in a specific place but you don’t know exactly who it is: “Riker to Transporter Room One,” or “Call the nurse in room 407.”

Sandra Miley, Vocera’s VP of Marketing, recalls the CIO of one of their hospital customers telling her, “There’s no faster way to communicate with someone unless they’re standing right in front of you.”

Vocera’s origins turn out to be unsurprising to anyone with enough hours logged in the 24th century: Dr. Rob Shostak of the Stanford Research Institute was looking for something to do 14 years ago and had a fateful conversation with his family. Shostak’s wife Nan (a big enough Star Trek fan that she would often be late picking him up from work because the episode she’d been watching hadn’t yet finished) and daughter Becca brought up the notion of the Starfleet combadge; wouldn’t it be great to just be able to talk to whomever you wanted without dialing? Shostak, who held enough patents and awards in mathematics to paper a wall, thought, “I can do that,” and got busy founding the company. In equally serendipitous fashion, one of Vocera’s first employees, Brent Lang, had a son who was born close to the start of the company, and it seemed like a natural idea to show their early prototype to a roundtable of nurses. In what might be the fastest proof of product-market fit ever, one of them looked at the presenters and said, “Where have you been? I need this now.”

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Nurses run all over the place, looking in countless rooms and yelling down hallways trying to find the right person to help with a specific situation at a critical time. Communication gaps in healthcare have tremendous impacts that can result in varying levels of patient harm, not to mention wasted dollars annually estimated to be in excess of $10 billion. By following the Starfleet model, the Vocera system directly solves this problem, delivering instant real-time communication between key players at the tap of a badge.

Vocera’s not just sticking to healthcare, either. “We’re focused on mission-critical environments where the people working are truly mobile and information is very dynamic,” Miley says. “Hospitals are the ideal use case: people are always moving, and information about patients is always changing; highly coordinated handoffs are common.” This is also true for places like nuclear power plants, where workers need to take reactors offline while fuel rods are changed; not only is downtime expensive, but communications need to be synchronized so everyone can do their jobs quickly and minimize radiation exposure. Luxury hotels that pride themselves on personalized service also need their staff to be up on their communications game. The results speak for themselves, according to Miley: hotels get better service with fewer staff members, nuclear reactor turnarounds happen faster, and hospitals are quieter, more peaceful places without a constant stream of calls over the PA system. Eventually, she says, Vocera wants to extend its system to the home, starting with healthcare workers who want to be able to connect with off-sight doctors instantly: “It’ll be a communications layer that can find you anywhere.”

“We’re at a very unique time in history,” Miley says. “Look at all the innovations that have happened in other industries; healthcare innovation is the last frontier, and there’s a tremendous amount of change going on in consumer and patient empowerment. All the technology that’s coming together right now is like a perfect storm; how many times in your life are you at the right time and the right place with the right tech to have an impact? That’s something we can facilitate.”

Though expanding to other markets is part of doing business, Miley thinks healthcare is the most rewarding sector by far. “Most tech companies don’t see the benefits of how they impact people,” she says. “What’s really different about Vocera is that we get stories of how a baby was born or a life was saved because of our technology.” She continues: “The people who work here are very mission-driven: they’re here because they want to have an impact — they want to collaborate, be a part of something. The badge is all about collaborating better; that’s the mentality the people who work here have, and that’s the mentality we try to encourage.”

You’d be hard-pressed not to find the very same ethos on any Federation starship. It’s good to know at least one piece of Starfleet tech is well on its way. Next up, medical tricorders! After that…who knows? (I’m crossing my fingers for warp drive!)


Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.

XPRIZE is an innovation engine. We design and operate prize competitions to address global crises and market failures, and incentivize teams around the world to solve them. Currently, we are operating numerous prizes, including the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE, challenging privately funded teams to successfully land a robot on the Moon’s surface, and the $10M Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, challenging teams around the world to create a portable, wireless, Star Trek-inspired medical device that allows you to monitor your health and medical conditions anywhere, anytime. The result? Radical innovation that will help us all live long and prosper.