The Embedded Medical Revolution

Semiconductors prepare to solve the worldwide healthcare crisis.

By Geoffrey James, Contributing Editor

The semiconductor industry is famous for changing the world. So perhaps it’s not surprising that history is about to repeat itself. This time, it’s the world of healthcare that’s about to change. A new generation of embedded medical chips is driving the creation of smaller, faster, and cheaper medical testing devices(see Figure 1). In the short term, these improvements are saving money for overstretched hospitals and overstressed doctors. Over the long term, embedded medical chips will likely revolutionize and democratize the healthcare industry in exactly the same way that the Internet has revolutionized and democratized the entertainment business.

The Healthcare Problem

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), spending on healthcare today comprises approximately a sixth of the total U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Since the 1960s, such spending has consistently grown faster than the overall economy. The U.S. is projected to spend over $2.2 trillion on healthcare in 2007 or just under $7500 per U.S. resident. In 2016, that figure is forecasted to grow to a whopping $4.1 trillion or $12,782 per resident—nearly a fifth of the country’s GDP (see Figure 1).

Fig 1: Photo of a Microchip PIC10F microcontroller compared to a U.S. dime.

The market forces that are contributing to this rapid increase in healthcare expenditures are complex. Yet a good portion of the cost is tied to expensive medical testing devices. Aside from being expensive from the onset, the older models were highly proprietary in design. As a result, they’ve often proven expensive to maintain. Because such devices tend to be bulky and difficult to move, they have been located in facilities that are inconvenient to a wide range of patients. They therefore reduce utilization and cost effectiveness.

These devices also proved difficult because federal regulations mandate extensive testing. This testing is intended to ensure nearperfect reliability. To make matters even more challenging, medical devices can’t be changed after the testing process starts. This aspect throws an enormous burden upon device designers to get it right the first time—or else. As a result, the replacement of medical devices takes place at the proverbial snail’s pace. Unlike personal computers, which have a replacement cycle of less than five years, medical devices must remain in place and in use for 10 years or more before anyone thinks of swapping them out.

The Short-Term Solution

The embedded medical semiconductor is pretty much a magic bullet that can put an end to these problems. According to the experts we consulted, embedded medical chips will reduce healthcare costs in the short term in the following five ways:

1. Devices will cost much less. As with any other electronic design, the more one designs into the chip, the less one has to put into the board. In addition, the device will become cheaper to manufacture, asserts Christine Van De Graaf, product marketing manager in the Embedded Modules Division at Kontron. “Boards with smarter embedded chips are easier to make,” she explains. There’s also an important side benefit to embedding functionality. “If the feature is already embedded into the chip, you don’t have to worry that a costly problem will occur in that area during the 18-month Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval cycle.”

2. Devices will be more widely distributed. According to Steve Kennelly, manager of the Medical Products Group at Microchip, medical electronics are being incorporated into devices that can be sold to consumers over the counter (see Figure 2). “Something as simple as a blood glucose meter used to be found only in a doctor’s office. But now, it’s something that anybody can buy in a pharmacy,” he explains. “We’re beginning to see devices like defibrillators hanging on the walls in homes and offices.”

Fig 2: An artist’s conception of disposable medical electronics which will employ small, inexpensive but highly capable semiconductor devices.

3. Devices will be easier to use. The push toward consumeroriented medical testing devices is having a spinoff effect in hospital usage as well, says Kennelly. “Point-of-care devices are being designed so that a layperson can do diagnostics and deliver therapy without a doctor being involved,” he says. “This also makes it much easier to train hospital personnel on the usage of such devices and make it possible for a wider range of hospital employees to be more significant contributors to the healthcare team.”

4. Devices will be more accurate. Medical testing devices— especially those that involve imaging—often require the ability to read and analyze data from multiple sensors. Because today’s embedded chips can be built upon multicore CPU designs, it’s possible to “farm out” computeintensive operations to additional CPUs. Dedicated CPUs will then control the operation of the chip and the analysis of the data, explains Yanyi Yang, chief of architecture at IntervalZero. “The new chips are much better adapted for real-time applications than the old designs,” he says.

5. Devices will be smarter. A medical device will become more “intelligent” as more functionality is embedded into a chip, says Jack Lam, senior product manager at American Portwell Technology Inc. “Compared to human medical personnel, a hardware system is low cost and has a low maintenance cost,” he explains. “When you combine that intelligence inside a device that runs ‘cool’ and consumes less energy, you’re well into the realm of saving money on a number of different parameters.”

The Long-Term Future

In 2008, the medical segment of the semiconductor industry already represented a mind-boggling 7% of the $31.8 billion global industrial semiconductor market, according to the market research firm Databeans. What’s more, medical electronics is growing faster than any other segment of the industrial semiconductor market. It’s expected to clock in with an incredible 15% per year until 2014. At that point, it’s expected to exceed $6.2 billion in yearly revenue (see Figure 2).

If that growth takes place, the world can expect to see an actual revolution in healthcare, states Alan Lowne, CEO of the Saelig Company. “Advances on the drawing table today include wearable medical-monitoring devices that provide doctors with early warnings of patient health problems, remote-control robots that allow doctors to perform surgery from thousands of miles away, and systems that solicit passersby to take needed medical tests when nearby testing facilities are underutilized,” he explains.

Healthcare costs may continue to increase as a result of an aging population and the continued degradation of the environment. As a result, embedded medical devices represent the healthcare industry’s best hope to keep those costs in check. At the same time, they will provide an increasing quality of service.

Geoffrey James is a regular contributing author for Embedded Intel® Solutions magazine. He is both an author and journalist who writes about business, technology, public policy, strategy, and sales/marketing. Geoffrey has written over a hundred feature stories for national publications.