Medical electronics is big business, and it’s going to get a lot bigger. Industry analysts are predicting that by 2015 the global market for devices used in patient monitoring systems will total $15 billion, according to device makers and industry analysts. Not surprisingly, a lot of companies and research institutes are jumping onto the medical bandwagon with developments that range from very sophisticated biosensor technology to heart monitors that can do a lot more than amuse jogging fanatics.
Biosensing is at the core of a new research initiative between Japanese semiconductor and production equipment specialists Tokyo Electron (TEL) and European research centre Imec. Both are participating in Imec’s Human++ bioresearch program, and work will include collaboration on biosensors and specialty imaging.
One of the research objectives of the Human++ program is the development of next-generation platforms for automated cell inspection methods for use with stem-cell research. A crucial aspect of this work includes the development of high-quality imagers and sensors to study induced pluripotent stem cells. A silicon photonics biosensor to quantify biomolecules involved in stem-cell proliferation also will be created.
The Security Question
This research is at the very cutting edge of medical electronic developments, but plenty of technologies already help health professionals monitor patients in remote locations. Key security issues about the massive amounts of personal data being generated by these systems are emerging, though. How and where will this data be safely transmitted and stored?
Cloud computing storage is an obvious answer when looking at the long-term storage of ever-increasing amounts of information. Industry experts generally agree that hacking into a cloud is virtually impossible, so data would be safe. That’s fine, but what about getting the data to and from the cloud?
This is where a major concern lies regarding patient privacy. We’re all monitored when we use our computer or mobile communications keyboards, but most of what we do, such as personal banking, is reasonably secure. However, the reality is that we are all subject to surveillance by our ISPs and companies like Google.
These organisations monitor every keyboard stroke and analyze this data to use it commercially—for example, to increases the effectiveness of marketing campaigns. But what if this surveillance can grab medical data and then relay it to insurance companies or to medical supply companies? The implications are worrying, and we could very well require government legislation to ensure the protection of our medical data from attempts to commercially exploit it.
A Line Of Defense
So what sort of equipment is helping to create medical data? Unsurprisingly, given the rapidly escalating market value of medical electronics, STMicroelectronics is making a strong commitment to expanding its expertise and innovation in sensor technology for healthcare applications.
The company is supplying Preventice, a developer of mobile health solutions and remote monitoring systems, with wearable body sensor technologies to power the BodyGuardian Remote Monitoring System (RMS). Preventice recently obtained clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the BodyGuardian RMS, enabling the company to market and sell it to hospitals and clinics for use in detecting and monitoring non-lethal cardiac arrhythmias (see the figure).
Like Google, the BodyGuardian System uses sophisticated algorithms to analyse data. With this equipment, doctors will be able to monitor symptoms outside of a hospital environment while patients go about their daily lives. A body-worn sensor attached to the patient’s chest collects data, including the patient’s ECG, heart rate, respiration rate, and activity level. It then wirelessly communicates with physicians, enabling them to monitor patients from their tablet or desktop computer.
This monitoring will save lives. Already, capable levels of data encryption can assist with information security. The volumes and complexity of medical records that will need to be communicated are set to explode, though, given the rapid development of medical electronics.
X-ray, CAT, and MRI images are particularly sensitive data. Encryption techniques can help communicate these records securely, but steganography is a far better option for today’s medical technologies. Steganography completely cloaks information by burying it in other information. Digital images are particularly good subjects for this technique, but security will still rely on the how bulletproof its algorithms are.
For more, see “Maxim ‘Fit’ Shirt Monitors Vital Signs”.