By Michael Dunkley and James Wilson
If there’s one thing we can always count on in the medical device world, it’s the steady beat of progress. We look for the big idea that will save lives, make doctors’ jobs easier and the medical field more efficient — thus saving costs. As designers, we keep our eyes on innovations in the medical device world. Here are three trends that are making an impact.
- Making medical devices smaller and portable
Access to effective care often requires medical devices which are smaller, lighter and more portable. In order to go big, we need to think small. Interestingly, this trend is prevalent in both resource poor and resource rich healthcare systems.
In the developing world, portability is essential to providing healthcare access to the people who need it most. This is especially true in in rural areas where access to care is limited. For care to be effective, it needs to be brought to people, as opposed to the other way around. When healthcare workers can take life-saving medical devices deep into the field huge benefits are achievable. Regular, low-cost testing at point-of-care enables potential life-saving interventions if the patient is not responding to treatment. However, the most common types of tools for this kind of testing are large and expensive and, as a consequence, destined to remain in large facilities far from where care is needed. The Daktari CD4 device makes it possible to perform crucial diagnostic tests to monitor progression of HIV in patients at a low cost in any environment.
The developed world has a different motivation for its interest in portable healthcare. Chronic illnesses make up the majority of healthcare spending – roughly 70 percent, in fact. Portable devices make it possible for people to receive treatment outside of the hospital and to regain active lifestyles. The NxStage System One is a tabletop hemodialysis system that allows patients to receive more regular and shorter dialysis treatments in their own home rather than face the obvious inconvenience of multiple lengthy visits to the hospital each week. The end result is better therapy and increased convenience.
- The drive towards earlier and more accurate diagnosis
Current cancer detection and monitoring methods can be extremely invasive or poorly targeted, resulting in low treatment efficacy and unpleasant side effects. One example of a technology with the potential to improve cancer care is the new digital PCR platform from RainDance Technologies called the RainDrop™ System.
Its precise and sensitive testing offers the potential for early detection of mutated DNA in a patient’s blood stream as a biomarker for metastatic cancer. It is increasingly recognized that cancer is not a single disease but is extremely heterogeneous. If such cancers can be detected and identified, the prospects for developing targeted therapies and for monitoring their treatment efficacy in patients is hugely increased.
The rise of genomic testing is offering an even more impactful scenario where a person’s propensity for a certain disease, such as type-2 diabetes or hypertension, can be identified long before the person has any detectable symptoms associated with disease onset. Technologies for genomic profiling are current focused mostly on research, but higher throughput and lower costs are making such research more productive. As more people are able to have their genomes decoded and compared, we will begin to understand in great detail which genetic variants are responsible for the onset and progression of certain diseases.
- Using data for prevention
There is a growing desire for medical devices — including those that are wearable — to track and monitor personal health. There are countless smart phone apps that track health-related issues, such as restful sleep, exercise, and diet. The current trend is towards devices that support and tap into our increasingly endless desire for more information.
While some of these devices are for personal health and use, like the FitBit, others send this information directly to medical professionals. Sense4Baby is a wireless baby monitor for high-risk pregnancies. It reduces the cost of healthcare for these pregnancies by enabling an infrastructure independent model that shifts the point of care from centralized hospitals with highly trained specialists to remote outpatient clinics or at-home monitoring with generalist clinicians and community health workers.
The increase in mobile or connected health is not without its challenges, however. The biggest barrier to its expansion isn’t technology, but rather a combination of regulation and reimbursement. There are questions about who pays for these devices. But recent shifts in healthcare policy, including financial penalties for hospital readmission and the rise in accountable care organizations, is beginning to provide much needed incentives. How these devices are regulated depends on how the information is used and the criticality of decisions based on such information.
Mike Dunkley is Vice President of Program Development at Continuum Advanced Systems, where he is responsible for building successful client engagements in the design and development of medical devices, connected health applications, clinical diagnostics and life sciences instrumentation. James Wilson is a Principal Industrial Designer for Continuum. He specializes in medical device design.
Disclosure: Daktaridx and RainDance Technologies are clients of Continuum Advanced Systems.