Brian Buntz

March 25, 2014

3 Min Read
Designing Futuristic Medical Technology

What technologies will help drive the future of medicine? In the diagnostic realm, promising technologies include digestible sensors, Big Data analytics that crunch huge number sets coming from patients' genomics and other sources, and wearable sensing technologies. In the therapeutic space, promising breakthroughs include the ability to create synthetic organs (artificial pancreas, anyone? Or a liver?), and 3-D printing, which can be potentially used to create everything from biomaterials to custom prosthetic skulls, noses, ears, and eyes.

Breakthroughs from the computing realm that could have a big impact on medicine include augmented reality, the ability to merge the real world with computer-generated data or imagery. At the moment, the most famous example of an augmented reality system is Google Glass.

Augmented reality

An augmented reality system used for vertebroplasty. The technology here was developed at the Technische Universität München.

In addition, computing technology could potentially redefine the field of radiology. "The Guide to the Future of Medicine (PDF)" predicts that within a decade, computing technology will enable data drawn from image scans and diagnostics to be woven together, and could make MRI into a cognitive analysis system.  

Computing technology, of course, is getting both smaller and more powerful. That combination could be used to embed sensing and computing technology into conventional medical devices, imbuing them with new functionality. Examples include the iKnife, a surgical cutting tool that can detect cancer using an onboard mass spectrometer and MC10's vision of embedding flexible electronics into smart coronary catheters.

Learn more about designing next-gen medical devices at BIOMEDevice, held March 26-27, 2014 in Boston.

The next-generation of medical devices, however, won't be just fueled by technology alone, however. There is the much-discussed but elusive thinking-outside-of-the-box that requires designers and engineers to let go of what they think they know and engage in ruthless inquisitiveness that also permits experimentation and promotes and empathic understanding of others.

This is the realm of design thinking, which seeks to understand the underlying human need with the utmost clarity, while addressing technological and budget limits. The results of good design can be seen in the consumer tech field, where it has enabled intuitive user interfaces in devices like tablets and smartphones, which have consequently ever-expanding user bases. In the medical device field, however, the implementation of design thinking, with its zeal of making products unique and as easy to use as possible, owing in part to the complexity of medical treatment and regulatory constraints. For that reason, the influence of consumerization is spilling over to the medical device market.

The approach used to design devices is gradually beginning to shift as well. The conventional engineering approach that has been often used in medical device circles, where prototypes are carefully vetted and realistically crafted and based on clear-cut assumptions, is not the most conducive to innovation. Design firms such as HS Design and IDEO advocate making numerous quick-and-dirty and diverse prototypes to get the creative juices flowing.

At BIOMEDevice Boston,Tor Alden and Steve Simantiras, both of HS Design will discuss techniques used to spur rapid ideation, design thinking, and provide advice on how to do contextual research .

In this video hosted by the Mayo Clinic, Tim Brown, president of CEO of IDEO discusses the application of design thinking to medical technology.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz and Google+.

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