At this point, medical advice is easy to obtain. The news media is full of it, with each expert having his own perspective on things, often conflicting with each other. Social media is worse because of the mix of accurate and inaccurate information and fake news — everyone, despite lack of qualifications or authority, has something to say. I'm not medically qualified so I'm not going to post health advice, but I do want to talk about medical devices.
While I usually talk to embedded software developers about the technology and processes surrounding that software, it's useful to have a background on why their product is needed.
The demand for medical care and equipment capable of delivering care has grown exponentially in recent years. There are two somewhat related reasons for this. First, there are now more and more conditions that can be effectively treated. In the past, it was more common to be told that you would have to endure the disease and suffer, or you might be told that you were going to die. Of course, all of this will still happen, but it's more likely that some treatment will be offered. The second factor is that the average age of the population in most Western countries is rising. We are living longer and longer, and medical needs tend to increase with age.
That's good news for both the medical device maker's shareholders and the embedded system developers employed by the company. I am interested in the challenges and opportunities for the latter group.
Historically, medical devices were bulky machines to which patients were transported when necessary. Depending on the need, some machines can be turned around in the hospital. Today, the focus is on portable instruments. Obviously, there are also some big static machines…handheld MRI scanners are unlikely to appear anytime soon. Why does this change happen? The obvious answer is because we can – modern electronics have made portable devices more viable than ever. But the move was also driven by the “biggest driver” — money.
To understand the financial health of modern healthcare, a key driver of medical device design, one must consider the primary context in which healthcare is delivered:
Active Health – Mainly preventive measures and health monitoring.
Home Care – an extension of (1), which may involve intervention, drug delivery, and/or data networking.
Residential care – in nursing homes, etc.
Acute Care – Hospital
Broadly speaking, the cost of health care services increases from (1) to (4) in these cases. Therefore, there is a very strong need for equipment that specifically facilitates (1) and (2) (but the efficiency gains in (3) and (4) are also welcome). Portable devices are clearly strongly favored.
So, that's the context of the trend. Embedded system developers now need to deliver the goods. The challenges that embedded software designers face can be summarized as:
Efficient tools are required to ensure compact code and rapid development; cost and time-to-market are affected by this factor.
Many medical embedded devices are real-time (ie, must respond and operate within a predictable time frame). This could mean deploying an RTOS; choosing a product with a proven track record in medical applications is key.
Many medical devices have some kind of user interface, usually graphical. GUI support in RTOS is clearly desirable.
Any portable device requires judicious use of battery charging. An RTOS with power management capabilities would make sense.
As medical devices require certification, a proven and compact RTOS is critical to reducing costs.
With healthcare being seen around the world as "in crisis", it seems to me that embedded software developers have a chance to be "heroes" and truly change lives.
Reviewing Editor: Guo Ting