Medical device innovation: Trends to watch
The last decade has seen some amazing advances in device technology. Hobbyists can own and pilot miniature drones capable of stabilized 4K footage for under $500USD. We have seen two successful rover missions on Mars, and personal autonomous vehicles are now closer than ever. While all of these innovations are incredible, there have been breakthroughs in the world of medical devices that don't receive the same level of media attention, but are no less revolutionary.
While there are certainly well-known large companies such as Philips and GE producing medical devices, there are approximately 6,500 medical device companies in the US with the vast majority being small and medium enterprises (SMEs). These companies, along with medical device software development vendors, are part of a growing market with a value expected to grow to USD$208B by 2023.
Here is a look at some of the newest innovations in medical devices that are in use now, as well as a look at some we may be seeing in the not-too-distant future.
Medical 3D printing
3D printing technology has been around for enough time that most people are familiar with it, and some may even have a 3D printer of their own. However, the technology is proving to be incredibly useful in the medical world as shown by these examples:
Surgeons are able to reduce time in the operating theater by creating 3D images from CT scans and then printing them. These 3D models can then be used to create patient-specific surgical plates to ensure a custom fit. Less time in surgery can mean better outcomes for the patient, not to mention reduced costs.
3D printing allows for the creation of completely custom prosthetic devices to guarantee a perfect fit for wearers. Even more exciting, because of the wide availability of consumer 3D printers, people around the world are able to collaborate to share and iterate on designs for the benefit of all.
One of the most advanced uses of this technology is the ability to use “bio-ink” containing stem cells to print blood vessels. The successes in this field are paving the way to the goal of printing transplantable organs, which, while only in early stages of research, may eventually allow for the production of patient-specific organs, removing the reliance on donors. With almost 120,000 people on the waiting list for a transplant, this technology will have the ability to make an incredible difference.
Software as a Medical Device (SaMD)
Like traditional medical devices, SaMD is regulated by the FDA and encompasses software that is created to diagnose or monitor specific medical conditions independently from specialized hardware. A good recent example of this is the Apple's ECG app used in conjunction with the Apple watch to look for atrial fibrillation (AFib).
Augmented Reality (AR) & Virtual Reality (VR) devices
Many people will be familiar with the gaming applications for VR & AR, as seen by the popularity of games like Pokemon Go and VR headsets like the Oculus Rift. The immersive experience offered by these technologies is also well suited to medical applications like:
AR technology such as Microsoft's Hololens, has been used successfully in surgery to project life-size 3-D holograms over a patient's body during surgery to help locate blood vessels under the skin in a non-invasive way. This helps speed up the time for long surgeries and help improve the outcome for the patient.
Mind-controlled artificial limbs
Once the realm of science fiction, robotic limbs that can be controlled by a user's mind are now a reality. In the case of three patients in Sweden with arm amputations, prosthetic hands were attached to bone, and electrodes were implanted into nerves and muscle. These hands have been in use by the patients for as long as seven years, and even more amazing, in recent years they have been updated to allow the patients to gain the sensation of touch.
The University of Michigan researchers have also achieved amazing results in this area too. A major hurdle with this technology is that the strongest nerve signals for using in conjunction with prosthetic devices is in the brain, but this involves high-risk surgical procedures. The UM team instead relied upon small muscle grafts on the severed nerve endings in the arm. When combined with electrode implants the grafts allowed nerve signals to be amplified. These amplified nerve signals were able to be recorded and then when combined with machine learning algorithms and prosthetics, allowed patients the ability to have control over individual finger movement – all with no training required.
Telemedicine & remote patient monitoring
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a number of advancements in medical device technologies in a record time. Overwhelmed hospital and medical facilities and the highly-contagious nature of Covid-19 necessitated the need to provide appropriate levels of patient care while maintaining social distance to reduce the spread of the virus.
One such example of this was the Mayo Clinic's remote monitoring program for Covid patients which allowed for them to self-isolate at home, however still be monitored remotely via connected devices for a worsening of vital signs – triggering medical intervention if required.
These are just a select few of the ways in which medical device innovation has changed the healthcare industry in the past few years. Software and hardware breakthroughs are improving the health outcomes for people in ways that would have seemed far-fetched only a decade ago. The decade to come will be no less exciting.