Electronic Design

Corporate America Should Do More To Advance Medical Technology

Anyone who has ever spent time in a hospital or come close to entering one is probably praying for the day when the medical sensors and healing devices seen in shows like Star Trek become reality. Although such devices remain many years off, today's medical diagnostic systems can deliver full 3D views of your body. We also have equipment that can analyze body chemicals and detect the most miniscule amounts of almost any substance. However, results often take hours or days to obtain. That's not fast enough for someone in a life-threatening situation or extreme pain.

Advances in sensing technology will allow doctors to perform remote or noninvasive detection of injuries or illnesses. Improvements in nanotechnology will simplify invasive diagnostics and healing/treatments. Coupled with those improvements, better DSP algorithms and faster DSP chips will enable systems to extract more precise results from the mass of data that has to be analyzed. Additionally, multigigahertz microprocessors will aid the overall computation and analysis process to deliver results in minutes to hours.

But developing the various technologies needed to accomplish all of these goals requires a huge investment in R&D and a lot of patience. Moreover, because medical systems aren't typically sold (or manufactured) in large quantities, the fiscal payback for many of the systems developed isn't large and often spans many years. Although government research grants and public donations cover a significant portion of the research costs, there's never enough funding for every research project.

Through referendums, voting, and other means, we could try to convince our government to increase its funding of medical diagnostic research tools. But how about asking the high-tech companies themselves for additional support? Rather than wait for government funding, we could set up a general fund to which all high-tech companies would contribute. A board of doctors would manage that fund and determine how to dole out the accumulated contributions.

Of course, this raises the spectre of how we would convince the high-tech companies to support yet another cause that would nibble away at their profit margin. No one wants to be forced to contribute money for any cause. But without some government incentive (or coercion), can we really count on corporate good will to help fill the coffers?

It would really be refreshing, especially after the last few months of revelations regarding corporate finances, to see companies taking a more active role in supporting medical research beyond their general charitable contributions. Call it altruistic, but money spent to aid medical research could also have a significant payback to the companies and their corporate executives. As those executives age, heart attacks, illnesses, and other injuries could rear up and put them in their own life-threatening situations. So donating now would serve as a possible hedge against debilitating diseases or injuries.

Not only does medical research have to find and diagnose the many causes of illnesses, it also must try to find a direct cure or alternative remedy. Thus, if tissues or organs are damaged beyond regeneration, then electronic/electromechanical solutions must be sought.

This is already happening with artificial limbs. Some of the latest replacements are extremely lifelike. They're actually linked to muscles and other electrical signal paths so that the mind can control the motion of the limb. Next on the list are such options as eyes for the blind and ears for the deaf. Failed internal organs, including the heart, kidneys, and lungs, are other key targets for electromechanical or electrochemical replacement. Although some equipment exists, most of it is much too large and too expensive for widespread availability.

There's still much work to be done. But the rewards we can reap go well beyond the financial return.

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