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EETE JUNE 2013

Sensors & Data Loggers Smartphone-based patient monitoring is set to impact medical equipment OEMs By Colin Weaving Patient monitoring and diagnosis equipment is being transformed, undergoing a profound change that will severely disrupt the markets served by many of today’s successful medical equipment OEMs. Nanotechnology, in the form of highly integrated MEMS sensor systems-on-chip (SoC), looks set to make entire categories of hospital or laboratory equipment obsolete. The change is being accelerated by consumer adoption of low-cost, universal data terminals with telecoms capability – otherwise known as smartphones - making health monitoring at home a safe and practicable option. By collaborating with the semiconductor industry, can the manufacturers of medical equipment navigate their way successfully through this disruptive period? Patients today are used to being required to visit a surgery or hospital for blood tests, scans, electro-cardiograms and other types of health monitoring. Blood tests, for instance, are a routine element in the process of diagnosing and treating cancer, heart disease and many other lifethreatening or chronic conditions. For a blood test to take place, blood must be taken from the patient by a nurse or doctor, carefully packaged, sent to a laboratory and tested using largely manual processes by a medical technician. The results must then be recorded by the technician and sent to the patient’s medical practitioner. There are many drawbacks to such a process. Among the most important are the high cost of skilled medical staff, and the use of dedicated medical premises. There is also a long delay between taking the blood test and receiving the results. In urgent cases in which the patient’s condition is worsening rapidly, this delay can put the patient’s life at risk. In all cases, doctors would prefer to prescribe treatments based on the patient’s current (real-time) health indicators, rather than indicators dating from the original blood sample. What’s more laboratory technicians are bound to make a certain number of errors either in testing blood or in transcribing the results. The sample provides a snapshot of the patient’s health at a single point of time. Continuous data capture over a period of time provides a more reliable and informative picture of the patient’s health. A similar description could be made of many other types of patient testing or monitoring. The common thread running through them all is the requirement for specialised, expensive – and often large – equipment, and skilled and expensive staff to operate it in dedicated premises. The demand for accurate diagnostic measurements has, as a result, spawned a large and lucrative industry. The medical profession attaches a high value to the improved treatments they are able to offer when advances in the technology of medical equipment provide more accurate or precise views of patients’ state of health. Manufacturers of medical equipment can therefore enjoy wide margins on big-ticket items, supplemented by regular and predictable maintenance fees for calibration, servicing and support. The business model of the health monitoring equipment industry is, however, about to be turned upside down. In other kinds of equipment, tiny MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) devices made by semiconductor manufacturers such as Freescale and STMicroelectronics are already replacing conventional electro-mechanical sensors. Microphones, accelerometers and gyrometers in mobile phones and tablets are now routinely implemented in MEMS SoCs. Now bio-technology pioneers are starting to develop new kinds of medical devices that use MEMS technology. In the future, doctors will be implanting tiny health monitors into the patient’s skin, or prescribing to patients ‘pills’ that contain a blood test kit-on-chip: an integrated MEMS device that the patient swallows. The early medical uses of nanotechnology will see the implementation of relatively simple functions such as pumps and pressure monitoring. Further into the future, devices might be performing the direct electro-chemical measurement of specific molecules. It is quite realistic to imagine a MEMS sensor consisting of a vibrating element coupled to a surface element designed to attach to a molecule. The attachment would change the frequency of the MEMS oscillator. By building multiple copies of this MEMS element on one die, the device could detect concentrations of the molecule. Once in the bloodstream, such a device might, for instance, be able to measure the level of chemicals such as cholesterol in the blood, and transmit the results via a standard wireless protocol such as Bluetooth. These results could then be displayed on the patient’s smartphone running an app supplied by the device manufacturer. In this vision, the patient can acquire a continuous, real-time stream of data about their blood simply by taking a blood test pill each day. It requires no fixed equipment, premises or specialist staff. The data can be uploaded continually to medical practitioners, so that treatment, alerts and advice can be admin- Colin Weaving is Technology Director of Future Electronics (EMEA) – www.futureelectronics.com 30 Electronic Engineering Times Europe June 2013 www.electronics-eetimes.com


EETE JUNE 2013
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