Engineers Work Medical Miracles Every Day

June 8, 2006
The prognosis for medical electronics is very strong. While the aging baby boomers will drive growth, don't forget the rising middle classes in India and China. The worldwide market is more than $70 billion, with double-digit growth forecast f

The prognosis for medical electronics is very strong. While the aging baby boomers will drive growth, don't forget the rising middle classes in India and China. The worldwide market is more than $70 billion, with double-digit growth forecast for diagnostics and therapy, home medical, and imaging technologies.

At a recent Texas Instruments press and analyst event, TI highlighted medical electronics as a major opportunity for both DSP and analog design. Combining its own market projections with forecasts from IMS Research and GE Medical, TI predicts fast growth over the next decade for ultrasound (23% cumulative annual growth rate), implantable medical devices (19% growth), DSP-based hearing aids (18%), external defibrillators (17%), and personal medical devices (12%).

Doug Rason, TI's VP of strategic marketing, foresees growth stimulated by the increasing "decentralization" of medical electronics. Applications are moving out of the hospital and into the patients' world via portable, wearable, and implantable devices. Reliability and low power are two obvious requirements in the mobilized medical market.

MEDICAL BLUETOOTH Pervasive broadband in the industrialized world and the new cellular infrastructure in developing countries mean that health care can "reach out and touch" patients like never before. Rason says that insurance companies are still working out the details on how they'll compensate for virtual doctor visits, but remote medicine should bring more flexible care and better efficiency to the healthcare system.

Bluetooth offers an easy path for medical device connectivity.-With portable medical devices connecting to the cell phone, it will be easy for patients to check in with their doctors to report their vital signs from anywhere they roam.

Remote communications also can bring advanced medical care to undeveloped areas. By offering remote heart-care diagnostics, doctors can analyze EKG data and then decide if a patient needs to travel to a clinic for further care. It's a noble vision, as TI looks to include its processors inside the "next billion phones" forecast to roll out in the developing world.

TI also spotlighted communications technologies in a special session on advances in video applications. While LifeSize Communications' high-definition video conferencing (1280 by 720 at 30 frames per second) primarily targets business applications, it could be useful in remote health monitoring. Surf Communication Solutions' simultaneous video and voice conference for the cell-phone infrastructure also could be applied to remote diagnostics and care.

Raj Talluri, TI's Imaging and Audio Group manager, demonstrated how the company's DSPs are used for image stabilization and cleanup in cameras. Talluri also offered a look at the DaVinci processor, which offers a single-chip solution for media processing. Again, these advances in consumer electronics also enable better imaging in medical applications.

Ultrasound and medical imaging get higher resolution and better clarity, faster scans, and more portable form factors. Similarly, portable devices like the automated external defibrillator take advantage of processors initially developed for cell phones, providing LCD graphics that allow an easy interface for inexperienced users (see "A Prescription-less Portable Defibrillator" at, ED Online 11662).

BIONIC MIRACLES Most remarkably, TI highlighted the use of DSPs in bionics applications. A video clip featured a double amputee with new bionic arms. Electrodes connect into regenerated nerves from the chest muscles and feed signals to a DSP, enabling the patient to convert thought into motion. The patient could pick up dishes and take off his cap!

The company's chips also are being used at Johns Hopkins' Wilmer Eye Institute for bionic eyes for patients with advanced retinal degeneration. The institute is using implantable image sensors to take over the functions of damaged retinal cells.

Gene Frantz, one of TI's Principal Fellows, described regenerative vision for a patient suffering from retinitis pigmentosa. Via the artificial silicon retina coupled with signal processing, the patient could discern a fork and a plate and was able to feed herself.

"She was crying. Then the whole room was crying," says Frantz.

Yes, the junction of electronic design and medical science is truly a place where miracles can occur!

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