For the first time, electronica will have a dedicated medical electronics conference. Steve Rogerson looks at what to expect.
The integration of electronics into the medical industry is in the middle of a serious revolution with connectivity and the IoT changing the way doctors and hospitals deal with monitoring and treating patients. With the pressures of an ageing population and financial limitations on care, the advent of this type of technology could not have come at a better time.
Not only is the world seeing professional medical equipment becoming more connected, leading to an explosion in the data being gathered around health issues, but the consumer giants are moving in on the field with the likes of Apple and Fitbit bringing out wearables that track our movements, measure our heart beat and even take an ECG. The line between professional medical equipment and consumer wearables is becoming blurred.
All of this is challenging engineers to increase reliability, lower cost and reduce power consumption, as well as tackling security issues as confidential medical information is transmitted to and from, and stored in the cloud.
Thus, the organisers of electronica decided that the time was ripe to have its own medical conference. Called EMec (for electronica Medical Electronics Conference), the one-day event on the Thursday of electronica is split into three streams covering regulatory and safety, smart monitoring, and digital patients.
Josef Lechner, Senior Sales Director at Analog Devices, is on the programme committee. “People going to electronica are buyers of medical equipment,” he said. “The show attracts a wide range of people beyond the traditional engineer. We are targeting this at a more general audience. At the end of the day, customers are looking at ready-to-go equipment that people can use.”
He said the goal of the conference was to look at what medical equipment could do rather than how it was made. People can follow up by visiting the stands for more detailed information.
Andrew Burt, Executive Business Manager at Maxim, compared the show to more dedicated medical events.
“In pure medical shows, there is a lot of deep embedded stuff,” he said. “But electronica is picking up on wearables and looking at how useful they are. When you go to pure medical shows, there are a lot more medical doctors. The people here are more electronics people assisting in the medical domain. I am hoping for some lively dialogue.”
Lechner said that today, the big issue is vital signs monitoring, through wearables, implantables or more traditional, but now connected, equipment. For the future, he sees this leading to predictive analysis, where by tracking people’s signs it will be possible to predict in advance when something is likely to go wrong and thus alert them to seek medical assistance before the heart attack happens.
“Predictive medicine and prevention are of great interest to the insurance industry, which is why the conference will be catering for them,” said Lechner.
Also on the programme committee is Steven Dean from ON Semiconductor.
“The theme of medical electronics is really the connected human,” he said. “All of us are seeing megatrends coming together whether equipment is bodily worn or remote. Electronics and people are coming together.”
He said this was leading to “cool technology” in the wearables arena for continuous monitoring. “If you look at what the likes of Fitbit and Apple are doing, these are consumer guys,” he said. “But behind the scenes they are acquiring clinical technology. On one hand, clinical therapies are moving into the home and on the other the consumer guys are moving up the chain and for a lot of us, that was not what we expected.”
Burt added: “Everyone is seeing the wearables market as a new frontier. We are seeing consumer companies such as Apple moving in - its watch now supports ECG measurements.”
He will be talking about the company’s recently developed reference design that is basically a complete wristwatch that can measure vital signs.
“If the products we are wearing can actually collect data and produce trend data, that can help with preventative medicine,” he said. “But if everyone is collecting all this data, how do we get the doctors to look at them? We still need the patient-doctor dialogue.”
One area that has seriously benefitted from this growth in medical monitoring technology is the sensor industry. Very small sensors are needed that can accurately measure everything from blood pressure to heart rate, and even whether the patient is standing, sitting or lying down.
Among those dealing with this will be Francois Villeneuve, Marketing Manager for Sensors at NXP, who will be focusing on MEMS sensors.
“We are seeing a huge transition in the medical space,” he said. “We are seeing a digital transformation of the medical market and in the business model that runs that market. A lot of this is coming from the insurance companies.”
His talk will look at how this affects home care and telehealth applications.
“I will explain how we can find value in MEMS, for example in pressure sensors for drug delivery,” he said. “We see a proliferation of sensors as these devices move from mechanical to electronic, both to do monitoring and improve the user experience with automatic drug delivery. I will also look at what is required for medical certification.”
He said he was seeing a trend among the big pharmaceutical companies to move from unconnected drug delivery devices to more electronic and connected products. These can also check the impact of the drug on the patient.
Among those tackling security issues will be Mike Bartley, CEO of Test & Verification Solutions. He believes that the reason many medical devices are so vulnerable comes down to the supply chain.
“Manufacturers get their parts from different places,” he said. “There is quite a complex supply chain so you have to know exactly what has gone into these components and once in the field they are not always updated. We need to build confidence into these devices. We need standards.”
Different hacks, he said, tended to get a lot of press coverage, which undermined confidence. “We have to improve that,” he said. “There are consumer standards bodies and people trust those who comply. But we don’t normally get that with internet connected devices. There are industrial standards for security but they are not generally recognised by the public.”
He said that an equivalent to the Kitemark was needed for medical connected devices that consumers could learn to trust.
“We are talking about the types of medical devices people would use in their homes for remote patient monitoring,” he said. “These might be intrusive to the body so pose a much greater threat. Attacks still occur and vulnerabilities are increasing as devices become more complex. As with other industries, we are losing the battle against hackers.”
A major challenge for designers of such equipment is power consumption, and ON Semi’s Dean believes the semiconductor industry is playing a key role in this. “We are talking energy harvesting, silicon-based batteries, paper batteries.”
On energy harvesting, motion is a big one, but not new. There have been old-fashioned wristwatches around for years that rely on motion to wind them up. Today, motion can also be used as a source of electrical energy.
“There is not only motion,” he said. “The heart guys are looking at harvesting energy from a beating heart. That’s pretty cool. The other area is ambient versus body temperature, but that is not very efficient.”
Douglas Mitchell, Product Marketing Engineer at Cypress, is looking at this from the side of reducing the amount of power the semiconductor devices, particularly memory, consume. Continuous monitoring means that measurements will have to be repeatedly loaded into memory to keep records of what is going on inside the patient.
“Traditional memories such as low power SRAMs need power all the time to keep the data,” he said. “This brings problems for extended battery life. Flash and EEPROMs both consume a lot of energy when you write to them, which is not good for the battery, plus they wear out so you end up putting in very large memories to compensate.”
He will plugging the benefits of ferroelectric RAM, a technology Cypress gained when it acquired Ramtron a few years ago.
“We have been improving the process and making the product more precisely targeted to applications that need the features,” he said. “We are highly engaged with some of the top medical developers. What is catching our attention are implantables dealing with pain and brain functions.”
This involves putting neurostimulators in the brain to control pain and tremors. “It can totally change people’s lives,” said Mitchell.
The medical industry today relies on electronics as never before, so it is thus fitting that this giant of an electronics show should at last have a dedicated conference dealing with medical electronics. And from this sample of ideas from the speakers and organisers, it looks like it will be one of the must-see places for those involved in the field. Just what the doctor ordered.