As we’re frequently reminded, people are living longer and (in many cases) leading healthier lifestyles. This is primarily thanks to improved medical techniques and interventions. As elderly population demographics continue to grow in most countries, healthcare is following suit, booming on a global scale. Technology has played a huge role in this growth, and continues to enable improvements in healthcare to be realized.
From robotic surgery, electronic anaesthesia regulators, and therapeutic or diagnostic radiology machines, to communications technology in hospital wards, and various instruments found in outpatient departments ), technology is prevalent within the confines of the hospital environment technology being utilized within hospitals continues to develop, but a burgeoning marketplace is also emerging in a domestic context too. Much of it is intended to provide continuous or occasional monitoring of patients’ health, with the results that are gathered uploaded to healthcare operatives in hospitals, clinics or even GPs’ offices.
This reduces the burden on the healthcare system by allowing patients to attend hospitals or doctors’ offices for consultation less regularly than they might otherwise have to do, while enabling alarms to be triggered if unusual readings are noted. Perhaps most valuably of all, it enables patients to enjoy more relaxed lives.
Many people are significantly incapacitated by their medical conditions and find hospital visits mentally taxing and time-consuming. By having their readings captured automatically then passed on to relevant experts for analysis, much less emotional strain falls on the patients’ shoulders. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Near Field Communication (NFC) are two wireless technologies already being widely employed for accessing patient data..
Smartphones and their associated apps are now invaluable to doctors when they are on the move. They enable test results to be called up and viewed rapidly. They have also been found to improve clinical decision making, allowing doctors to check that they are on the right track immediately, rather than having to go elsewhere to refer to notes or study related material. Mobile technology is also frequently used by patients for downloading test results or readings from devices such as single-lead, Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) monitors, for instance.
As evidenced above, many of the innovations being made in the medical field are spin-offs from developments in consumer electronics. Wearable technology has been a tremendous buzz phrase for the last few years, with a great deal of progress being made in the area of fitness aids. While there are signs that the craze is starting to die down in the consumer field, the healthcare market provides an attractive alternative route through which ongoing technological development can take place.
Whatever the underlying basis of these developments may be, the key parameter must always be safety for the patient:In no way can the device in question jeopardize patient health. Medical wearables should not only be safe, but also reliable, both in terms of overall operation and the integrity of data being recorded.
One notable area of development lies in adhesive patches. These items contain sensors that enable the wearer’s sweat to be analyzed for important biomarkers and can, for instance, be used to detect the existence of conditions like cystic fibrosis. Doctors can also use patches to monitor other aspects of a patient’s health, such as oxygen levels, heart rate, or medication-taking.
Academic researchers from the Technical University of Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, are currently working on combining the use of organic and large area electronics with techniques such as thin film metallization. By doing so they can build up multiple layers of sophisticated, flexible electronics that are highly optimised for wearable medical deployment.
Meanwhile, diabetic patients are also benefiting from developments in wearable technology. Frequent and accurate reading of diabetics’ glucose levels is vital to ensure that these individuals’ blood sugar levels remain stable and are controlled effectively. Interstitial fluid (the fluid that is located between body cells and provides much of the body’s liquid content) serves an accurate indicator of glucose levels. A wearable tracker introduced by Dexcom consists of a disposable needle that goes under the skin and measures the amount of glucose in the interstitial fluid, along with a patch that sits on top of the needle and contains the electronics needed to capture the data and subsequently transmit it via Bluetooth. The needle and patch are worn unobtrusively on the user’s abdomen.
Powering wearable medical technology is another important aspect for researchers to explore. Ensuring that a worn device has access to the necessary power reserves is of paramount importance. Certainly no user wants the inconvenience of carrying a heavy battery everywhere. Research teams are studying ways in which nanotechnology can harness users’ body movements or heat to power the technology they wear.
As well as making sure that devices adapted from consumer-related beginnings to medical use are fully safe to use, there are security issues that must be addressed. It is obvious that the Internet of Things (IoT) will play an important role in the future development of healthcare technology. There is already enormous concern about how security for commercial devices is to be implemented and the form it will take in this world-changing development. Healthcare applications, with their stringent requirements when it comes to safeguarding patient data, will cause this anxiety to be amplified considerably.
There are still worries that pacemakers, controlling the heart’s fibrillation patterns for those vulnerable to irregular heartbeats, are relatively simple to hack into. Similar concerns have been raised about controlling the doses of insulin delivered automatically to diabetic patients by a tiny pump fitted in their bodies. The dosage level could easily be raised to lethal levels through the wireless link being compromised. Then, of course, there is the issue of malware finding its way onto hospital computer systems. Recent events have shown that there are serious vulnerabilities in that respect.
Liability is a key consideration in most technology industry sectors, but in few does it prove to be as critical as in healthcare. Medical errors occur, as do medical malpractice cases. Humans will never be completely infallible. Technology has an important role to play in supporting doctors in their decision-making processes, but there is still potential for mistakes to occur, whether in diagnosis or in treatment. If a piece of technology has aided the doctor’s actions, to whom should the blame be attributed? There is the prospect that a bug in the software or faulty hardware, rather than the medical practitioner, may be deemed responsible for inappropriate measures taken that severely impacted a patient’s life. This means that the accountability of device manufacturers, software vendors and IC producers could all be tested on a much more frequent basis. Are the legislative lines going to become increasingly blurred? That is a thorny question for lawyers to chew over.
While there are many concerns surrounding the incorporation of emerging technology into everyday healthcare, there are also immense opportunities for it too. Whether it is in the technology that underlies the delivery of services, advances in thin film electronics, low-power wireless communication, or something entirely new, the potential benefits are unquestionable. This is truly an exciting area to get involved in. After all, our health is the most important thing for most of us. What contribution can you make?
Mirko Bernacchi joined the Italian branch of Mouser Electronics in Assago in 2012 as a Technical Support Specialist. With more than 25 years of experience in electronics, Mirko provides expert technical assistance and support as well as customer service for our Italian office. He worked as a test development engineer at Celestica and Service for Electronic Manufacturing. At IBM he was a Burn-in memory modules test engineer and an Optical transceiver card test engineer, responsible for the installation of new test equipment, production test problem management and supplier interface as well as the introduction of new test routines.
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