How Engineering is Revolutionizing the Healthcare Industry

3D modeling, electroceuticals, and nerve-stimulation devices are some of the technologies that are having an impact

1 December 2017

Medical technologies have come a long, long way since the development of the bifocal in 1784 by Benjamin Franklin. Today, Paralympians are running 1,500 meters faster than Olympians at the recent games in Rio, for example. Blade prostheses store energy as they bear the runner's weight, and then release it when the runner pushes off the track.

Although most people with prosthetic devices do not need the speed these prosthetics offer, the example is illustrative of how engineering can completely change how a group of people—in this case amputees—live on a daily basis. Here are four other revolutionary feats of engineering in healthcare.

  • #1 3D Models

    What better way for surgeons to understand complicated anatomical procedures than to build 3D models? Such modeling can help the surgical team understand the patient's anatomy, so they can better plan treatment, particularly operations. The ability to see and feel an anatomical replica before surgery can sometimes mean the difference between amputating and saving a limb. In addition, beyond producing models, 3D printers are being used in health care to create dental and medical implants, hearing aids, prosthetics and even human skin.

    By 2019, in developed countries, 10 percent of people will be living with 3D-printed items on or in their bodies, predicts research firm Gartner. 3D printing will be relied on in more than one-third of surgical procedures involving prosthetics and implanted devices.

  • #2 Electroceuticals

    Bioelectronic medicine, also referred to as electroceuticals, uses device technology to read and modulate the electrical activity within the body’s nervous system. The technology can target a medical condition for treatment by controlling the neural signals going to an organ. Nerve-stimulating or nerve-blocking devices can be implanted on a nerve or held against the skin. They can then modulate specific nerve activity, or cause a change in organ function to occur, and restore health without the side effects of drugs. Such devices are in clinical trials to treat inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and colitis.

    This market is hot, and many stars of the tech world are interested. For example, Alphabet, Google's parent company, announced a partnership a year ago with British pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline to develop bioelectronic medicines. The partnership will invest as much as $700 million during the next seven years into the joint venture, named Galvani Bioelectronics.

  • #3 Diabetic Devices

    Diabetic treatment is seeing interest from internet of things technology providers. For instance, the Glucowise product is a noninvasive way for diabetics to sample their blood without a lancet. The sensor technology lets diabetics monitor blood glucose levels without piercing the skin. The device is portable and user-friendly: the user places it on the skin between the thumb and forefinger to take a glucose measurement, which will be sent to a mobile app that keeps a historical record of glucose levels. Intelligent analytics use that data to calculate and predict immediate trends in blood glucose levels, so patients can adjust food or medication intake accordingly.

    Meanwhile, Novartis and Google have teamed up to launch a contact lens that measures blood sugar based on glucose levels found in tears. The project has had some technical delays, but should it ultimately come to fruition it will offer diabetics one more painless alternative to lancets.

  • #4 Nerve Stimulation

    Headaches—migraine, cluster and daily recurring—are suffered by millions. Migraine.com reports that in the United States, more than 37 million people suffer from migraines. The most severe, chronic forms of headache are associated with the sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG), a facial nerve bundle. Autonomic Technologies is testing a patient-powered tool for blocking SPG signals when a headache begins. The solution involves the permanent implant of a small nerve stimulating device in the gum on the side of the head usually affected by headache. The implant's lead tip is attached to the SPG bundle. When a patient senses the onset of a headache, he or she places and activates a handheld remote controller on the cheek nearest the implant. Those signals stimulate the SPG nerves and prevent the pain-causing neurotransmitters from developing into a full-blown headache.

    These technologies are more than just a dream; they are in use or development today. Soon they'll be available to patients on a regular basis, while engineers continue to create devices that not so long ago would have been considered medical miracles.

Content sponsored by Digi-Key Electronics

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