While India has become a hub for affordable and quality healthcare and is seeing growing medical tourism, the per capita expenditure on, and penetration of, quality healthcare is still incredibly low.
To address the challenge, new semiconductor technologies have emerged that make equipment smaller, more energy-efficient, and cut the total cost of ownership while also providing quality results even in less-than-ideal conditions.
Globally, healthcare also has started to move from hospitals to home.
For patients this means easier access to healthcare, fewer hospital visits and reduced medical costs.
In India, it might not directly translate to equipment at home, but a central facility or a doctor in the neighbourhood that we go to for regular check-ups.
It might mean a doctor visiting a remote village with these affordable and small healthcare devices and setting up a mobile health check-up clinic. However, in order to be effective at home or at a simple clinic, medical devices must be easy to use, safe even under misuse, and able to distinguish between correct results and those obtained by incorrect procedures.
Much of today’s semiconductor development is targeted at home and handheld consumer devices for entertainment and communication.
This design expertise and even some of these devices directly can be made useful in the implementation of a generation of affordable solutions for self-use at home or by semi-trained staff at neighbourhood clinics or rural locations. These consumer devices, coupled with quality sensors and data acquisition devices, would result in medical-grade systems that can be readily deployed at a fraction of the cost of high-end equipment used in hospitals.
The precision of these devices is medical-grade, but cost structure is of consumer gadgets. These devices are exemplified by reliable, high-performance sensors, amplifiers and data converters that extract and digitise a precision signal relevant to a particular clinical condition, and then the powerful processors in handheld devices and tablets perform sophisticated analysis of the acquired signals.
Beyond the local measurement and analysis, a cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) system can be enabled at the back end with the handheld device sending it back via mobile/Wi-Fi connectivity to a central backend server to store, further analyse and make it available for any doctor to view and advise.
So what are the key components of such a system and what would they do?
Today’s medical diagnostic systems monitor specific target substances of clinical relevance. The measurement recognises the substance and generates a signal that is measured by an electronic transducer. An example of this is blood glucose detection, in which enzymes on glucose strips convert glucose to a measurable product.
In this process, an electrical pulse is generated corresponding to the level of glucose in the blood. Similarly, pulse oximeters used on fingertips in hospitals use a unique blood-flow measurement sensor and algorithm to find the level of oxygenation in the blood.
A wide variety of electronic transducer solutions exists today, such as capacitance to digital converters (like the touchscreen you see on your tablet or mobile phone), impedance to digital converters, LED-based photonic systems (like in the pulse oximeters), photodiodes, MEMS-based motion sensors for acceleration, gravitational pull and inclination, and gyroscopic sensors for rotation sensing (just like when you switch between your portrait and landscape mode on your tablet).
Often used in combination with high accuracy amplifiers, this converter takes the analogue electrical signal coming from the sensor and digitises it or converts it to a binary. The higher the accuracy required for measurement, the higher the precision of analogue-to-digital converters required.
High performance, minimum power consumption and low cost are necessary to enable compact, battery-powered medical diagnostics and monitoring devices for use outside hospital environments.
The consumer world has the processor ready. Powerful processors in mobiles and tablets can analyse the acquired signal to first verify the quality, turn it into medically useful information, then deliver the results to the patient or clinic staff in a useful format, while also controlling the device. (Think about a pulse monitor app running on a tablet connected to a miniaturised diagnostic equipment on its USB port.)
Sending the results to a central server via available Wi-Fi or cellular infrastructure ensures that the patient data is communicated back to a central repository for further analysis, or expert opinion or simply to be viewed by the physician.
A new generation of such miniaturised, portable and affordable medical devices include monitoring of the heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, blood oxygen content, portable ultrasound or scanner, diagnostics kits for common ailments and many more.
(The author is managing director, Analog Devices India)