Making The Healthcare System Technologically Friendlier

Feb. 12, 2009
People are living longer. More people are living with chronic diseases and disabilities. There’s a shortage of medical providers. And, healthcare insurance premiums continue to skyrocket. Together, these factors cry out for a healthcare system that can

People are living longer. More people are living with chronic diseases and disabilities. There’s a shortage of medical providers. And, healthcare insurance premiums continue to skyrocket. Together, these factors cry out for a healthcare system that can serve people better. But while the tools for diagnostics and healthcare treatment rapidly advance in performance, no practical system exists for their mass-scale adoption.

A lack of standardization among healthcare device inputs and outputs, communications protocols, and storage procedures is one of the main reasons for this dilemma. Another is the lengthy process it takes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve medical device use.

One prominent obstacle to adapting technology-enhanced healthcare is the absence of a unified medical records system that can follow a patient all over the world, with the patient’s records available to healthcare providers at the touch of a keystroke. Such a system requires reliable, secure, and efficient communications and storage for medical data that’s accessible by only healthcare providers, medical insurance companies, and the patient.

Many issues must be resolved. One is determining how to pay for technology-driven healthcare and who is going to pay for it. For example, there’s no system in place that allows a doctor to bill a medical insurance company (or the patient) for analyzing and treating a patient remotely.

And where does the cost of this technology-driven medical care end up? Does the provider pay for it? Does the patient? Or is it subsidized by government money that ultimately comes from the taxpayers? Then there’s the issue of liability. A mistaken diagnosis that relies on remotely transmitted data opens up new avenues for medical malpractice lawsuits.

In June 2006, the Continua Health Alliance was formed to address lifestyle, health, and demographic trends contributing to skyrocketing healthcare costs. It aims to improve and make more accurate healthcare management through the greater use of medical devices and equipment.

“With standards comes greater adoption of medical electronics technology. There are now many standards, some proprietary, for data interfaces between medical devices, communicating such data, and storing it,” says Ray Askew, manager of the chronic disease management market segment at Intel Corp. As a member of the Continua Health Alliance, Intel released for testing its Health Guide, a type of PC for medical information monitoring and communication (see the figure). It monitors the vital signs of elderly patients with chronic conditions and provides details via the Web to a remotely located medical provider.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) is working with the International Standards Organization (ISO) on establishing standards for healthcare data transmission and delivery, under the umbrella of the ISO/IEEE 11073 Personal Health Devices Working Group. The Continua Health Alliance is using these standards as the foundation for its work.

There’s no doubt that the technology exists for enabling better healthcare. Common low-cost microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) motion and image sensors are widely available to make a vital contribution.

“We’re using motion sensors for a better understanding of gait analysis in patients with joint maladies, hopefully leading to better treatment options,” says Avi Wolfson of the Industrial Solutions Market Group of Freescale Semiconductor.

MEMS technology isn’t the only solution. For certain types of MEMS structures like microfluidics, low-cost manufacturing can be difficult to achieve on a large production scale. In addition, micromachined silicon isn’t necessarily the most bio-compatible material for medical implants. One company, the Metrigraphics Division of DRC, specializes in producing precision components using an electroforming process.

Many of these components are used in medical applications like retinal implants and for the remote transmission of data and power signals between implantable devices and the outside world.

“The electroforming process is an age-old process that is much more cost effective than silicon,” says Randy Sablich, vice president and general manager of Metrigraphics. “We can build very precise and larger structures on small sheets than silicon micromachining. And these structures are more bio-compatible.”

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