Demand for medical care and, hence, for all the equipment that enables the care to be delivered, has been rising exponentially in recent years...
Demand for medical care and, hence, for all the equipment that enables the care to be delivered, has been rising exponentially in recent years. This is all great news for the shareholders of medical instrument manufacturers and the embedded system developers employed by those companies. It is the challenges and opportunities enjoyed by this latter group that is the topic of this article.
It is fair to say that, at this time, many of us have medical systems on our minds. I, in particular, had my awareness raised recently, when I went to my ophthalmologist. Most people have sight checks every two years, but, as my late father was Type 1 diabetic and suffered glaucoma many years ago, a more frequent check on my eyes seems prudent. This is why I got to experience all the medical electronics. I was given a thumbs up – nothing to worry about with my eyes – which is always a relief, but, as I said, it left me pondering all the technology that was brought to bear.
There are two, somewhat related reasons for the rise in demand for medical care. Firstly, there are an increasing number of conditions that can now be treated effectively. In the past, it was much more common to be told that you would just have to live with the illness and suffer or you might be told that you were going to die. Of course, all of this still happens, but it is much more likely that some treatment will be offered. The second factor is the mean age of the population in most western countries is rising – we are living longer – and medical treatment requirements tend to increase with age.
Historically, medical instruments were bulky, heavy machines to which the patient was transported when necessary. A few machines could be wheeled about within the hospital, as needed. Those were the only options. Nowadays, the big focus is on portable instrumentation. Obviously, there are still some big static machines – a hand-held MRI scanner is not likely to appear in the near future! Why this change? The obvious answer is because we can: Modern electronics makes portable equipment more feasible than ever before. But the move is also driven by the same factor that governs most parts of our lives: money.
The key driver of medical instrument design is the financial model of modern healthcare. To understand the nuances, the differentiation between the contexts in which healthcare is delivered needs to be appreciated:
Broadly speaking, the cost of healthcare delivery in each of these contexts increases from (1) to (4). So, there is very strong demand for devices that facilitate (1) and (2) in particular to help keep costs down (but also increases in efficiency in (3) and (4) are obviously welcome). Portable devices are strongly favored wherever they are technically feasible. This necessitates battery operation and often wireless networking of some kind. Not only are portable, wireless devices very convenient, it has been shown that eliminating cables in hospitals helps with cleaning and infection control.
It is interesting to consider a “typical” medical instrument in order to focus on the software challenges. A possible example might be a portable device that is carried by a patient and monitors their vital signs. Periodically, it sends the vital data to their doctor. It sounds an alarm and automatically summons help if something is awry. The patient can view their own readings at any time. It is possible to envisage such a device being used in all four healthcare contexts, with slight variations in its capabilities.
The key priorities in the design would be portability and cost, along with functionality, of course. The challenges/requirements presented to the software developer with this device are very broad:
With healthcare being seen as in crisis all over the world, the embedded software developer has the opportunity to be the “hero” and really change lives.