Medical Technology Innovations and the Electronics That Enable Them

Created: July 13, 2018
Updated: September 9, 2020

Doctor using medical IoT technology to display brain scan in hospital

Ten years ago, who would have thought one of the world’s largest medical equipment manufacturers, General Electric, would look to exit the industry and sell-off its medical equipment business? It is also a fact of life that changes like these tend to drive companies to look for profit opportunities in other industries.

In the 21st century, with a rapidly aging global population, you have the likes of aerospace giants, such as Lockheed-Martin and Northrop-Grumman, with large business units devoted to the medical & health care industry. Companies like these can bring massive resources to bear in the development of medical technology innovations. Electronics are often the backbone of these R&D programs.

The medical industry and health care is ripe for technological innovation, having taught at the university level off & on for several decades, I developed another barometer to detect this: the lack of suitable textbooks that are not woefully outdated, especially for upper division classes. In the case of medical electronics design & development, the most widely used textbook is over 14 years old! This is telling me that electronic innovations in medical technology have been moving at such a fast pace, it is difficult to develop a new text that is not outdated before it goes to press. While we won't be going so far as to talk about artificial intelligence, this medical technology innovation is truly futuristic patient care.

What Kind of Innovations Are Suitable for the Use of Electronics?

Technology innovations in the medical industry are, largely, concerned with making it so that either patient lives are better, or so that doctors can take care in an easier and more efficient manner. Technology is developed for patients in hospitals with medical care, treatment and life sciences in mind, and for more individually oriented devices. Broadly speaking, medical technology innovations in the industry are focused in three areas:

  1. Pharmaceuticals (including OTC medications and nutritional supplements)
  2. Clinical and in-home techniques in patient care
  3. Devices (equipment) used in the application of health care (by consumers or professionals)

Existing Electronics Technology vs. Innovative Electronics Technology

When identifying new technologies for the medical industry, you’ll want to understand the full R&D process involved. After all, in most cases, technological advance is a matter of resources. The three most R&D methods ranked in order of ease-of-use, are:

  1. Modified or adapted technology
  2. Combine multiple, unrelated technologies
  3. New technology

Whenever I design an electronic product for a given application, I do not start by looking to develop new technology; it is costly and takes far longer to bring to fruition. It is far cheaper and faster to modify or adapt existing electronic circuit technology. Examples of recent medical technology innovations using adapted electronics technology cited by GSK and other OEMs, includes: “activity trackers, smart watches, mobile medical apps, connected point-of-care diagnostics and medical devices, all aimed at capturing personal health data.”

Although engineers are not responsible for product marketability, we are a key factor in a company’s speed-to-market. In the cited examples, the greatest electronic design challenge was/is minimizing the circuitry footprint to stay within the physical parameters of the end product. Footprint constraints sometimes leave you with no alternative except to develop new, innovative electronics technology.

An Example of Medical Innovation Using Micro-electronics Technology

As electronic design engineers, why do we care what other R&D designers are doing? Simply put, it keeps us from developing tunnel vision, and/or self-imposed limitations (i.e.; the “it will never work” attitude); staying openminded to the possibilities is very important.

Patient pill on circuit board

This might not be the best way to combine your medical needs and your electronics

Downsizing Technological Innovations

Let’s start with the continuing evolution in downsizing electronic circuits. But, when discussing electronics miniaturization in terms of innovative medical technology, how small is small? Ada Poon, a Stanford University research engineer, has been actively pursuing micro-miniaturization for delivery of pharmaceuticals via implanted electronics. This technology is known as “electroceuticals.”

Her R&D has led to IC chips small enough to “swim” throughout the bloodstream and are powered wirelessly from outside the body. Her design regulates the delivery of medications by internally sensing what the body needs. Electroceuticals may be beyond the average electronic medical device OEM, but, an electroceutical’s wireless power source, which is located outside the body, might be more within technological reach.

Synthesizing the Human Senses

Human sight and hearing have experienced tremendous growth in electronic technology innovations to correct or improve these important senses. Problems with our sense of smell, taste and touch, however, often see less attention than the other two. Everyone has experienced the temporary loss of taste or smell when we have a cold or the flu. Most of us have also experienced a loss of touch for a few moments when our foot or hand falls asleep.

But, what about the loss of touch for a burn victim? Another Stanford researcher, Zhenan Bao, published an article in April of this year on Electronic Design’s website about his progress toward “skin-like material with sensing capability.” This innovative medical technology has taken 20 years of hard work by a multidisciplinary team. Bao’s team developed a stretchable, rugged “skin” that is essentially a printed circuit with thousands of transistors.

Prototypes of the design yielded a 2” square substrate with over 6,000 transistors on it. Bao has advanced the technology far enough that commercial fabrication techniques have been developed, and other applications are being explored beyond artificial human touch. The project has gone so well that the likes of Samsung Electronics and the National Science Foundation have provided funding for the project.

Ingestible Sensors as a Diagnostic Tool for Stomach Health

In February of this year Australian-based ELE Times published a report on ingestible sensors developed by RMIT University in Melbourne. RMIT’s work has advanced far enough that they have actually conducted clinical trials on humans.

The sensor is designed to detect various stomach gases. The device is about the size of a large oblong, vitamin capsule, and is simply swallowed by the patient. One of RMIT’s researchers stated, “Our ingestible sensors offer a diagnostic tool for many digestive disorders, from nutrient malabsorption to colon cancer.”

Medical Technology Innovations and Growing Forward

When you look at the medical technology innovations just discussed, it is readily acknowledged that form factors and fabrication means present a different challenge for each application. But, each device still has a thread for electronics design engineers, which is the circuitry that enables its essential purpose.

Altium Designer trace width spacing screenshot

Smart PCB design software will enable you to move forward with medical technology quicker.

Your company may not have the manufacturing equipment necessary to produce these more advanced devices, but, there is a growing capability in the industry of companies specializing in medical device innovation, manufacturing and/or design services. Many of these companies have extensive leading-edge capabilities, such as ADM Tronics, using Altium Designer® electronic design software.

So, whatever aspect of electronic medical device technology is lacking at your company, there are resources out there to fill in the gaps. Using the best design software can help you manage these resources. With Altium Designer’s strong PCB layout software, design rule checking, and unified design environment, creating the technology to benefit your industry has never been more intuitive.

Keep your mind open to new possibilities and if you want to know more about how smart PCB design software can help you talk to the experts at Altium Designer today.

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