MEMS and the Patient – Computer Real-Time Interface
We are an industry of fads and trends. As a close consultant friend of mine often says, our industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually trying to differentiate between the two. "Futurists" tell us what is happening next – or sometimes what is happening after what is happening next – a relatively safe place from which to operate since by the time whatever happens after what happened next happens, it is too late to get your money back.
I’d like to discuss an essential technology with unlimited application to healthcare technology and quality care that has been quietly happening while everything else that is happening next has been happening – almost completely under the healthcare IT industry radar.
Have you ever wondered how your cell phone or iPad display knows how to orient itself depending on the position in which you are holding your phone? How your digital camera remains stable enough to take a perfect picture even though you know you moved a little bit when you pressed the shutter button or icon? How the compass application on your cell phone knows the direction you are pointing the phone? Or how your Wii game reproduces the tennis stroke, golf stroke, or punch that you deliver with the handset swinging in midair with just the right direction and intensity?
Just a few decades ago, we marveled that entire computer circuits could be on a single chip the size of the head of a pin. Today, micro-machines are created and produced on silicon chips that fit easily on chips of the same size. Almost any machine that you can imagine – with actual moving parts – can now be embedded in microchips. That includes (but is no means limited to) gyroscopes, radios, sensors (pressure, radiation, stress), transmitters, levers, hinges, gears, chain assemblies, micron-sized motors, tweezers, pumps, separators, injectors, needles, scalpels, propellers, turbines, mirrors, …. and on and on. The Industrial Age is being reborn on a microscale and even a nanoscale level. The science of MEMS – Micro-Electrical-Mechanical Systems – is well underway and has been for more than a decade.
That positional sensor that rotates your cell phone display is a microscopic acceleration detector. Micro gyroscopes keep your camera steady. MEMS sensors keep choice lists and drop-down menus scrolling on device screens when you speed up your touch movements. Combinations of such devices tell your Wii machine if you just threw a jab or an uppercut and how hard you punched. Within a few months of the tsunami disaster in Japan, micro-radiation detectors were available within cell phone circuitry to serve as alerts to radiation exposure.
On the nano scale, sensors based on silicon chips use electron spin instead of charge to store information using nanoscale layers of magnetic film with thickness measured in atomic levels.
The implications for medicine and healthcare are both endless and mind-boggling. Embedded microchips are currently capable of measuring and transmitting real-time blood pressure and glucose levels in a linear timeline. Hearing aids are likely to be replaced by self-adjusting artificial cochleas. There is active development of artificial implantable retinas. Cardiovascular stunts are being designed to measure and transmit blood flow and therefore the integrity, patency, and efficiency of the stent (cheaper and more accurate than CT scanning). Embeddable microchips can perform and transmit lab analysis studies and even do DNA analysis. Micro pressure sensors can transmit intra-arterial pressure in abdominal aortic aneurysms. Pressure sensors in contact lenses and even embedded in the iris can transmit intraocular pressure measurements for real-time monitoring of glaucoma treatment.
As we struggle to implement electronic health records to maximize real-time documentation, order entry, lab reporting, and data sharing, an entire science is developing that is capable of delivering direct exchange of digital information. Not between external devices, but directly from within the bodies of our patients.
Imagine how this capability might eventually impact health information exchanges, data collection, outcomes monitoring and adherence to protocols, developing personal health records, and the concept of the Medical Home.
The trends of today may well fade to fads that have been eclipsed by science that has outpaced them.
The MEMS industry itself is no fad. In 2001 it was a $215 million industry. According to IHS iSuppli‘s market intelligence, MEMS revenue will grow at an enviable 9.7% CAGR (compound annual growth rate), from $7.9 billion in 2011 to $12.5 billion in 2016. This compares to only 4.5% for the overall semiconductor industry. In term of units, shipments of MEMS sensors and actuators will more than double, from 5.4 billion in 2011 to 13.7 billion devices in 2016—a 20.7% CAGR.
An entire renovation and revolution in how we diagnose, treat, measure, and monitor is soon to envelop us.
Gentlemen, start your nano-engines.
Sam Bierstock MD, BSEE is the founder of Champions in Healthcare, a widely published author and popular featured speaker on issues at the forefront of the healthcare industry, and the founder of Medical MEMS, a healthcare MEMS technology consulting group.