Are you looking for a new technical challenge—or a new job? You might want to consider the healthcare sector. It’s growing fast in terms of new opportunities being advanced by very inviting consumer data, particularly in the U.S., and in a growing investment in medical electronics technology development, much of it from consumer electronics companies.
The opportunity starts with the demographics. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the “85 or older” age group is now the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, and 20% of the U.S. population—72 million people—will be 65 or older by 2030. Market projections also show growth in consumer-level medical electronics. InMedica, a division of IMS Research, expects manufacturer revenues from the production of consumer medical devices to reach more than $5 billion by 2011, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 10%.
The list of players is growing, too. Intel, Nokia, Panasonic, Philips, IBM, Samsung, Sharp Electronics, Qualcomm, Cisco, Motorola, Hitachi, Fujitsu, Verizon, Vodafone, and Sprint Nextel are already on the case. Chip companies, including Texas Instruments, Freescale Semiconductor, Actel, On Semiconductor, STMicroelectronics, Infineon Technologies, Analog Devices, and Cypress Semiconductor, have at a minimum formed dedicated business units to focus on developing and promoting products for the healthcare device market. And, there’s more…
• Brian L. Halla, chairman and CEO of National Semiconductor, lists healthcare as one of his four new megatrends. (The others are renewable energy, electric vehicles, and sensing and detection.)
• Harry Wong, a senior analyst at Parks Associates, says almost 400 health and fitness applications have been developed for Apple’s iPhone, about 30% of which are free.
• Meridian Health, a healthcare provider in central New Jersey and sponsor of the Digital Health Zone exhibit at the recent International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is partnering with several healthcare device manufacturers to develop new products in remote chronic disease management, cognitive software, and mobile technology-based medication reminders. It also has been holding talks with Best Buy about stocking a range of new home healthcare products.
• San Antonio-based MedSignals, which makes an electronic med-minding and pill-monitoring pillbox, is talking to Radio Shack about creating a healthcare products section in its stores.
• The market research firm Gartner Dataquest estimated the total medical electronics market for semiconductors at approximately $3.42 billion in 2008. Gartner also expects this number could reach $4.48 billion by 2012. The good news for companies like Actel, according to Gartner, is that FPGAs could account for up more than $323 million of that total.
• The outlook for venture capital in the field is also healthy. Ernst & Young’s annual Med Tech Report reports the U.S. medical technology industry attracted record amounts of venture capital in 2007 and sustained that pace in the first half of 2008. “That capital helps new and emerging growth companies that often are the engines that drive next-generation innovations that save and enhance the lives of patients,” says Stephen J. Ubl, president and CEO of the Advanced Medical Technology Association.
What about job opportunities in the sector? CareerBuilder recently listed 2152 medical technology-related positions, ranging from embedded software engineer ($95,000 to $115,000) to market segment manager of medical electronics ($80,000 to $105,000), principal test engineer for medical devices ($75,000 to $95,000), and software engineer for electronic medical devices ($70,000 to $85,000). In mid-January, Yahoo HotJobs posted 1478 similar positions, including a technical projects manager for an electronic contract manufacturer, a principal designer of medical device engineering, and a medical device systems engineer.
Halo Monitoring, which develops personal monitoring and alert systems for senior citizens and their caregivers, including an automated, wireless fall detection system for the elderly, hired 11 engineers in the past seven months, mostly people with backgrounds in RF and sensors. “As we grow, that’s who we will need,” says Rachael Brown, Halo’s marketing manager.
Other technical skills in demand to develop new and innovative medical technology products and applications will be Internet and Web-based technologies, printed electronics for wearable, printed body sensors and other sensor-based technologies, easy-to-use touchscreens and other human interface devices, and gaming technologies to encourage patients to use remote monitoring.
Wireless technologies including Bluetooth represent another growing opportunity. In fact, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group has formed a committee to work with larger organizations in the development of technical standards for healthcare devices. There’s also a need for engineers with backgrounds in electromagnetic interference (EMI) to ensure the safety of wireless-based medical monitoring systems.
The interest in healthcare is understandable, especially for consumer electronics and chip companies where portability and miniaturization are key elements in their designs.
Portable glucose meters, for example, are about the size and shape of a PDA. Advances in semiconductors have already led to significant size reductions, enabling less intrusive placement of implanted devices, such as cardiac pacemakers, neurostimulators for treating central nervous system disorders, and hearing aids.
The Intel Digital Health Group began shipping its first consumer medical product, the Intel Health Guide, which combines an in-home patient device with an online interface to enable clinicians to monitor patients in their homes, in December. Qualcomm set up Qualcomm Wireless Health to develop market-specific software using its mobile BREW platform and has invested in a personal health mobile virtual network operator called LifeComm. Vodafone is exploring a short message service to send health-related reminder messages to improve patient compliance with treatment regimens. Google Health and Oracle are also working the medical technology sector.
A Growing Market
Intel is collaborating with healthcare industry leaders in Europe to demonstrate the benefits of its new Health Guide for a wide range of chronic conditions. The device carries the CE mark under the EU Medical Device Directive, and it received 510(k) market clearance in November from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Actel believes recent developments in chip design have helped the industry stay ahead of the growing trend toward miniaturization in medical devices. “High levels of integration, low power, small footprint, and high reliability are required to meet battery specifications, reduce design footprint, ensure reliable operation, and minimize heat dissipation,” says Rich Kapusta, Actel’s vice president of product marketing and business development.
Philips has acquired Lifeline, a home healthcare monitoring system, and Respironics, which makes equipment to treat sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. Also, Philips is monitoring 720,000 elderly or infirm at-home customers in the U.S. and Canada.
Philips recently announced the development of an “intelligent pill” that contains a microprocessor, a battery, a wireless radio, a pump, and a drug reservoir to release medication in a specific area of the body. The “iPill” can measure the local temperature, report it wirelessly to an external receiver, and treat digestive tract disorders such as Crohn’s disease at the location of the disease.
Technology For The Blind
One of the emerging markets within healthcare technology is the development of devices for the blind. National Semiconductor’s Halla said his company is helping the University of Santa Cruz, the University of Southern California, and Cal Tech win grants to develop retinal implants with chips.
“If you’re born blind or have macular degeneration or retinal pigmentosa, we can put a chip on the retina, and so as the nerves behind it are still alive, we can virtually let blind people see,” he said. In the works now, he noted, are chips that have a thousand channels that can give a blind person the equivalent of 20/80 vision.
Companies like Sendero Group LLC have also developed GPS software enabling the blind to use BrailleNote and VoiceNote to create routes for walking or riding in a vehicle, as well as for calculating distances and directions to a street address or intersection.
Stevie Wonder appeared at January’s International CES in Las Vegas to encourage vendors to keep blind people in mind when designing new products. The musician uses a BlackBerry and a nano iPod, which provides speech options for navigation. But touchscreens, although a craze among iPhone users, don’t work very well for the blind. Google is trying to change that and is working on ways to make touchscreen phones that blind people can use.
Where Do We Go From Here?
A study of portability and miniaturization trends by Actel says keypads, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and miniature motors are becoming commonplace for medical devices. As a result, designers face several challenges, including redesigning for rapidly changing customizable human machine interface (HMI) controller requirements, smaller form factors, reliability requirements, and improved battery life.