When Opposites Attract

Author: 
Brian Buntz

In 2007, Steve Jobs proclaimed that the "iPhone changed everything." And while this bold claim may sound like marketing hyperbole, it isn’t necessarily untrue. After all, the design of the iPhone has had a significant impact on the look, feel, and user experience of products far beyond just smartphones. Thanks to Apple’s innovative spirit and demand from patients, consumerization is making its mark on medtech.

In the past year, that trend has become especially pronounced in the diabetes device space. In many ways, the diabetes market is a good fit for medical devices that borrow from consumer product design. Because diabetes is a chronic disease managed by patients, for example, usability and intuitive features of treatment devices are paramount. And in this iPhone/iPad era, many patients already expect the same kind of functionality and ease of use from their medical devices that they experience with their mobile devices.

Innovative diabetes device companies are taking note. Late last year, for instance, the Apple-inspired t:slim insulin pump from Tandem Diabetes Care and the Dexcom G4 Platinum continuous glucose monitors were introduced to the U.S. market. A year earlier, FDA approved the iBGStar blood glucometer from Agamatrix that can connect directly to the iPhone or iPod touch.

Consumerization is picking up in the broader medical device market as well. Ernst & Young noted in its Progressions 2012 report the rise of "personal health technologies" resulting from the "the consumerization of medical devices and the medicalization of consumer devices." The line between the two worlds is likely to continue to blur.

Yet despite these converging interests, the design philosophies in the consumer and medical device sectors remain poles apart. "The merging of consumer and medical brings together two cultures that don’t have a lot in common other than the laws of physics," says Bill Betten, medical technology director at UBM TechInsights.

Among the most pronounced distinctions is the pace of the development process, which is slower and more deliberate in the medical sector. Furthermore, the longevity of supply at a component level in the medtech domain is key, whereas engineers tend to seek out the most horsepower for the lowest reasonable price in consumer electronics.

"If you run out of a component—even if it is roughly comparable—it can force you to redo, at a minimum, some of your documentation. It is not as trivial as buying the latest DRAM from the lowest-cost supplier and throwing it into a smartphone. You need to pay a lot more attention," Betten says. "Software upgrades are another killer. You can’t have a medical system malfunction because you push new firmware to it."

The intersection between the consumer and traditional medical device spaces remains fairly narrow. Engineers in the two sectors are accustomed to markedly different quality systems, regulatory systems, and documentation processes in design, for example. For that reason, it is rare for engineers to move back and forth between the two industries. Someone who is used to working on the next generation of a product every eighteen months might not be attracted to a market that may not see a new product introduction for five years or longer. Having said that, the intersection between the two spaces is growing, and cross-pollination is sure to yield exciting medical device innovations.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.