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3 Challenges to Overcome with MedTech Sensors

Advanced sensing technologies and the Internet of Things have vast potential to reboot medtech, from home systems that automatically dial 911 when an elderly person falls to the orthopedic implant version of the "check oil" light.

"We are experiencing a sensor explosion across all product lines," consultant Mark DiPerri told a gathering Wednesday morning at BIOMEDevice Boston.

Explosions also have their challenges, though. In particular, DiPerri complains of an overabundance of me-too solutions. Here are three additional challenges that were addressed during the seminar.

1. Getting the person out of the equation.

DiPerri has seen it time and time again: wearable health-monitoring devices that people enthusiastically use the first month, but don't use at all within four months. "Humans don't want to be bothered," DiPerri said.

The goal is to have sensors that collect and transmit information with no human intervention at all, DiPerri says. "I don't want them to do anything, because they're not going to do it."

DiPerri, for example, liked the BAM Labs sensor mat that goes under a mattress and monitors whether someone is in the bed, sleep pattern, heart rate, and breathing rate--all with minimal human intervention.

The potential is limitless when it comes to medical device sensors that might quietly collect information off of patients. DiPerri spoke of sensors inside orthopedic devices, for example, that can sense whether they're really fitting in with bodily tissues.

Michael O'Neil, principal engineer for new technologies at DePuy Synthes, thinks sensors could be used to warn of imminent orthopedic device failure.

A check oil light? "The devices themselves could be smarter. ... And it could tell you how it could be tuned up and it could be tuned up accordingly," O'Neil said.

DiPerri orthopedic sensor BIOMEDevice
Consultant Mark DiPerri spoke of sensors inside orthopedic devices that can sense whether they're really fitting in with bodily tissues.

2. Fitting in enough processing power.

Let's say a sensor notices some G-force taking place with an elderly patient. "Did they fall down the stairs? Did they fall on the floor? Or did they fall down on the chair?" DiPerri said.

Answering such a question could require two or three processors to analyze G-force, direction of motion (Was it directly up and down, like sitting in a chair?), and the actual elevation of the drop, DiPerri said.

In such devices, should each sensor have its own processor or feed into the same processor? DiPerri thinks that is an important question.

DiPerri is especially excited about microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). He mentioned a tiny battery-less, telemetric sensor containing a MEMS device that could be implanted inside the heart to measure blood pressure.

"I'm convinced that MEMS is going to solve a lot of problems with our medical devices," DiPerri said.

3. Finding more effective sensors.

A holy grail in the diabetes devices space is an the closed-loop artificial pancreas. But the challenges behind developing truly precise sensors for such a device provide a great example of how sensing technology needs to catch up.

Here's how Monica Swinney, staff engineer at BD Medical, described the electrochemical sensors presently used: "Glucose reacts with glucose oxidase protein and produces hydrogen peroxide that then reacts with the electrodes." Those are plenty of reactions that other chemicals in the body can interfere with, skewing the results. And the readings are often toughest in the range most crucial for diabetics, Swinney said.

"The current sensors are very challenged with accuracy. I do think we are going to overcome that," Swinney said.

Swinney expects the real breakthrough to come from optical sensors that are under development, which use substances such as boronic acid that fluoresce in the presence of glucose, with the light then measured with sensors.

Swinney, though, says other challenges need to be overcome for an artificial pancreas, including more fast-acting insulin that can respond to the more precise sensor readings.

And then, of course, there is the need for better computer processing.

Here's how DiPerri sums up where medical device sensors need to go: "making it consistent, making it reliable, making it accessible."

Chris Newmarker is senior editor of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @newmarker.

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