Technologies Fueling Faster, Cheaper, and Better Medical Devices

Posted in Medical Computing by Brian Buntz on February 19, 2013
FutureMed executive director Daniel Kraft, MD giving a keynote at MD&M West.

Medical device designers should keep a close eye on exponentially accelerating technologies, recommended FutureMed executive director Daniel Kraft, MD at a keynote address at MD&M West in Anaheim, CA. “Medical devices are starting to integrate many of these technologies as they get faster, cheaper and better and more applicable,” he said. These technologies are also shrinking and coming down in cost, enabling them to more readily integrated into devices. “It is not any one component. It is the mash-up of these that gives us opportunity.“

The world of smartphones and tablets is both an example of an exponentially moving technology as well as a healthcare platform unto itself. “Increasingly, we are attaching devices to [mobile medical devices], like glucometers and blood pressure cuffs,” Kraft said.

As for how device companies are linking medical technology to mobile devices, device companies are relying on a variety of strategies. For instance, the iBGStar blood glucose monitor from AgaMatrix uses Apple’s FireWire connector to connect directly to the phone. Conversely, the iPhone ECG from AliveCor converts heart-related signals from the skin and converts them to ultrasonic signals to the phone’s microphone. Still others use wireless technology like Bluetooth Low Energy.

The iBGStar glucose meter connects directly to the iPhone using Apple's proprietary 30-pin dock connector.

In any event, mobilization of medical devices is likely to only gain steam in years to come as smartphone technology continues to improve. “The iPhone 1 is already kind of old school,” Kraft said. “Imagine what the iPhone 10 could do.”  

Imaging Breakthroughs

Computing breakthroughs are enabling an array of breakthroughs in imaging technology, Kraft said. Makers of imaging equipment must face the challenge and opportunity of advances in scanning technology, which is continually getting faster and more powerful. “The scans [coming out in the next few years] are going to be a terabyte of data. That is 800,000 phone books of data,” Kraft said. Medical device companies will need to tap Big Data Analytics to help their clinician customers help sift through that data.

Touching again on the theme of mobile devices, Kraft mentioned the MIT Media Lab, which has created the EyeNetra smart devices that can attach to smart phones and check for eye diseases or to test visual acuity.

The Power of Consumer Tech

A growing number of companies are working to exploit consumer hardware for medical technology applications. Take for instance, the Microsoft Kinect, the Xbox gaming, which costs around $100. The Kinect or more sophisticated motion capture technology could be used in the operating room to enable surgeons with bloody gloves to control equipment without touching it—with a wave of the hand through the air.

Last year, Fredrik Rydén, a doctoral student at the University of Washington added sensory feedback to the Kinect. Similar functionality could ultimately be added to surgical robotic systems, enabling surgeons to operate on patients remotely while “feeling” what they are doing.

In a similar vein, Kraft mentioned the MedSensation glove. Developed in Singularity University's graduate studies program, the glove integrates an accelerometer, pressure and temperature modules, and ultimately ultrasound modules to facilitate physician’s ability to diagnose using their hands. 

Sensors, Sensors, Everywhere

The MedSensation glove is an example of a device that makes use of an array of sensors to offer unprecedented functionality—in this case to assist physicians with diagnosis.

The MedSensation is noteworthy for the sheer number of sensors packed inside of it. The explosion of powerful, low cost sensors is itself a trend to watch, and as sensors themselves are becoming more sophisticated, which will greatly expand the potential applications for devices incorporating them. Kraft pointed out that he was wearing a Basis watch that not only detects motion but also measures caloric burn throughout the day. A pulse oximeter on the bottom of the device measures the heartbeat. Future iterations of the device will also offer blood-pressure measurements.

Also referenced in the talk was the BrainGate2 microelectrode array, which can translate the brain signals into machine instructions. Leigh Hochberg, MD, PhD, a neuroengineer at Brown University reported in Nature last year that the technology enabled a quadriplegic to control a robotic arm using thought alone. EEG headsets provide an alternate method of connecting the brain with sensors.

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

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