On Star Trek, medical diagnoses were easy: Dr. McCoy pulled out a tricorder, and named a medical ailment without even laying a hand on a patient. Could a similar – albeit less powerful – device soon aid earth-bound medics?

From up to 40 feet away, the Standoff Patient Triage Tool (SPTT) would gauge a person’s pulse, body temperature and muscle movement, according to the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate. The 15-by-8-by-6-inch (or about 38-by-20-by-15-centimeter) SPTT will use lasers to rapidly measure vibrations of objects such as the human head and chest and calculate vital signs from the data. Airplanes, acoustic speakers and landmine detectors already make use of such technology.

This could be particularly valuable for paramedics after rushing to a scene with multiple victims, says the DHS. Vital signs help such first responders rank the severity of victims’ conditions. But this hands-on sorting of who needs to be treated first – the process called triage – can be time-consuming and difficult; every minute lost may be the difference between life and death. The new technology, notes the DHS, could do in 30 seconds what typically takes a medic three to five minutes per person.

And objective numbers aren’t the only factors in these decisions. “Human nature is to pay attention to the person who is screaming and bleeding, but someone else with a less obvious internal injury may need to be the first priority,” said Greg Price of DHS S&T in a statement. He sees the SPTT eliminating some of those biases. Price's team and their collaborators from the Technical Support Working Group, Boeing and Washington University’s School of Medicine, expect field tests of the SPTT – whose price they haven't settled on yet – to begin this fall.

We did a bit of a checkup with ER docs to find out whether this was a good prescription for care. Lewis Goldfrank, director of emergency medical services at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, sees great potential for the tool. “A 30-second triage and remote vitals monitoring could prove to be the paradigm breakthrough for both healthcare personnel and the current state of science,” he told ScientificAmerican.com in an email. “Technology has advanced drastically and utilizing SPTT could prove itself to be an effective manner to survey those ‘silent’ cases within a triage facility, emergency department, hospital or during a disaster.”

Still, it may be too soon for the handheld machine to replace up close and personal medical attention, cautions Goldfrank's Bellevue and New York University School of Medicine colleague Christopher Mcstay. He notes key vital signs, including blood pressure and oxygen saturation, not included in the machine’s repertoire. “The technology is not ready for prime time now,” says McStay, “but I can see its potential for future applications.”

The tricorder-like device may not be the only science fiction-inspired tool you hear about in the near future. A number of sci-fi novelists attended the DHS directorate's annual Stakeholders Conference last month. “Boldly going where few government bureaucracies have gone before, the agency is enlisting the expertise of science fiction writers,” reported The Washington Post, adding that the novelists “consult pro bono.”

Image of Star Trek "tricorder" courtesy of Diamond Select Toys via Flickr