Sensor advancements are driving innovation in both wearable devices and surgical devices. Speakers at the MD&M West 2020 conference explore several developments.
The role of sensors in medical devices is becoming increasingly more important, especially when it comes to developing new technologies such as wearable devices that can diagnose and transmit information for long periods of time. Recent developments in sensor technologies are driving the trend toward the decentralization of healthcare by putting diagnostic instruments in the hands (or on the bodies) of patients. The move toward miniaturization in medical devices has also enabled sensors to be placed on laparoscopic instruments, providing surgeons with valuable haptic feedback.
As with sensor fusion, good data, and a lot of it, is the key to a making a successful wearable device. “As these wearable devices are becoming smaller and more powerful and allowing people to wear them for a much longer duration, they're going to have artificial intelligence systems that are going to be able to identify not just patients having issues, but they will be more personalized [to detect] when a patient is outside of their base line,” said Steven Hansen, CEO and founder at Odin Technologies LLC.
He explained that these kinds of technologies will allow people to be referred to physicians or nurses for further treatment or diagnosis, or even summon help for critical patients. “These wearable devices are going to be able to extend the capabilities of a physician beyond where they are physically,” Hansen explained. “As hospitals are slowly becoming decentralized, you're having more at-home care, and you're going to start seeing a rise in the amount of wearable devices that are available that allow patients to monitor themselves,” he said.
Hansen believes there will be an increase in wearables in the military because of the way that warfare is changing—slowly starting to push towards smaller subsets of people that are doing very specialized missions. “These missions are often not on the front lines, but in enemy territories,” Hansen said, where it is difficult to evacuate personnel to hospitals. “You're having people that are going into combat and you need to be able to monitor and diagnose them. Because there isn’t a local healthcare system for these soldiers, they need to be monitored and cared for over days or weeks without advanced medical treatment,” he continued. “There's a real big push for additional wearable devices in this space.”
These products, especially those made for prolonged use, must be as small and lightweight as possible, as well as very robust. “Dust, heat, radiation, vibration, impact, water—all these kinds of things are present in austere environments, so the device has to have a level of robustness to be able to withstand the elements,” Hansen said.
And as we have seen before with technologies such as GPS, cell phones, and remotely controlled ovens that were developed by the military or NASA, wearable diagnostic device technology will be translated for consumer use as well, Hansen noted. “As the military finances new products, it can then take these products and translate them into the consumer space,” he said. “Military validation and use of technology is big in getting technologies off the ground,” Hansen explained.
Hansen said that sensors will also be used in daily living activities that will help people become invested in their wellness, which is extremely important for public health. “People are now asking themselves how many calories do I need each day? Is my heart really healthy? Is my heart rate too high? Is it too low? What's my blood pressure? All these things that help people in their daily lives to give better information on whether they’re becoming healthier and help these people improve their quality of living.”
Wearables will also help those patients who might be having minor concerns at home get the treatment they need faster. “It's not only going to help patients understand if they have an issue, but also help the physician identify what the problem is earlier, so they can give the patient the right treatment,” Hansen said. “This will also drive down cost, as well as lessen the time in diagnosing patients, because physicians will already have an inclination of what the issue is before the patient even shows up at the hospital.”
Of course, there are some challenges in developing wearables. Hansen said that one of the big hurdles is battery life for devices in both military and civilian use. “Can you get a device that's providing advanced diagnostics to continuously evaluate, diagnose, analyze, and transmit data without running out of power? The battery life has to be able to sustain diagnostic or information gathering, or even transmitting information over long periods of time,” he said.
Security is another issue. “If you're transmitting patient information over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, the opportunity for someone to wirelessly access the device increases,” Hansen said. “And so now you not only have to worry about diagnosing the patient, but you [might also] have people with malicious intent getting into those wearables, maybe messing with the device itself or the data.”
As for challenges with AI that a lot of these devices will use, Hansen said the big question is can the device learn itself out of being safe? “If you have an artificial intelligence engine, you have to prove that regardless of what inputs you give it, it will never hurt somebody,” Hansen said. “That's really hard to do. And a lot of companies have been struggling to produce these medical devices because you can’t necessarily prove that whatever input the machine gets is going to produce a safe output.”
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