Emerging Healthcare Technology

Earlier this week I attended a seminar on “Emerging Healthcare Technologies”, presented by the University of Ulster.  The content was fairly high-level but focussed on several areas that are in various stages of development but will reach the market in the next few years.

The first area was that of providing easy-to-use self monitoring devices, often with local data storage or wireless connections to the Internet. Examples shown were for heart monitoring or for blood sugar levels such as the one shown here. Much of the design focus was to get to the device to look like a gadget rather than a medical device and from the prototypes that were shown, they’re succeeding. There was also the promise of a “laboratory on a chip”, much like the one discussed here. This is a single device which can be programmed to diagnose multiple conditions and brings the potential benefit of cost reduction through mass production.

The second area was on assistive technologies, typically for those with early stages of dementia.  Imagine a house equipped with a variety of sensors, including motion detectors, fridge door sensors, sensors on cookers. Now imagine a computer monitoring this with rules based on “If the cooker is on but there’s no motion in the kitchen, alert the occupant” or If the fridge door is open for more than two minutes, remind the occupant”, with appropriate escalation procedures to 3rd parties if the problem persists. A system was also demonstrated that reminded the occupant what to do if they hadn’t done it yet, e.g. put on your clothes, brush their teeth, eat your breakfast, but it could also help with cookery by taking the person through recipes step-by-step. The interface for most of those was large flatscreens. Obviously, there are concerns regarding privacy but the purpose of these systems is to keep the individual in their own home and not moved into a residential home until their condition worsens.

The third area was that of well-being and most of us will have seen gadgets like the Nike+ running system. We can expect to see more of these systems which attempt to encourage well-being through the integration of multiple technologies such as heart-rate monitoring, GPS and social networking. The presenter commented on the relative costs involved. As it’s primarily a “toy”, it’s easy to produce a quite complex device for less than a 100 GBP. However, as soon as it becomes a medical device, costs soar with regulatory testing and approval.

Finally, a couple of small devices about the size of a pack of playing cards were shown off. They weren’t specifically medical devices, but their feature was that they were aware of each other and could communicate with each other using RF. There was a simple demonstration of the devices passing information between themselves using lights on the devices and their own relative positions. However, you could also see how a Lego-like construction system would permit units with different capabilities to be assembled easily and quickly and yet act as single device.

All very interesting and quietly reassuring for someone who might need to rely on this tech in a decade or two.