Challenges and Opportunities with Medical Embedded Applications

March 16, 2020 Colin Walls

At this time, it is easy to get medical advice. The news media are full of it with every expert having their own angle on matters, often conflicting with one another. Social media is worse as there is a mixture of accurate and inaccurate information and fake news – everybody, despite lack of qualification or authority, has something to say. I am not medically qualified, so I am not about to dispense health advice, but I do want to talk about medical instruments.

Although I would normally talk to embedded software developers about the technology and processes around that software, understanding the background to why their products are needed is useful.

Demand for medical care and equipment that enables the care to be delivered, has been rising exponentially in recent years. There are two, somewhat related reasons for this. First, there are an increasing number of conditions that can now be treated effectively. In the past, it was much more common to be told that you would just have to live with the illness and suffer or you might be told that you were going to die. Of course, all of this still happens, but it is much more likely that some treatment will be offered. The second factor is the mean age of the population in most western countries is rising. We are living longer, and medical treatment requirements tend to increase with age.

This is all great news for the shareholders of medical instrument manufacturers and the embedded system developers employed by the companies. It is the challenges and opportunities enjoyed by this latter group that interests me.

Historically, medical instruments were bulky, heavy machines to which the patient was transported when necessary. A few machines could be wheeled about within the hospital, as needed. Nowadays, the big focus is on portable instrumentation. Obviously, there are still some big static machines…a hand-held MRI scanner is not likely to appear in the near future. Why this change? The obvious answer is because we can - modern electronics makes portable equipment more feasible than ever before. But the move is also driven by "the great motivator" - i.e. money.

To understand the finances of modern healthcare, which are a key driver to medical instrument design, the main contexts, in which healthcare is delivered, must be considered:

  1. Proactive health - mainly preventative measures and health monitoring.
  2. Home care - an extension of (1), where there may be intervention, drug delivery and/or networking of data involved.
  3. Residential care - in a nursing home etc.
  4. Acute care - a hospital

Broadly speaking, the cost of healthcare delivery in each of these contexts increases from (1) to (4). So, there is very strong demand for devices that facilitate (1) and (2) in particular (but also increases in efficiency in (3) and (4) are welcome). Portable devices are obviously strongly favored.

So, this is the background to the trends. Embedded systems developers now need to deliver the goods. The challenges to the embedded software designer may be summarized:

  • There is a need for efficient tools to ensure compact code and fast development; costs and time to market are affected by this factor.
  • Many medical embedded devices are real time (i.e. must respond and behave in a predictable time frame). This probably implies that an RTOS needs to be deployed; selecting one that has a track record in medical applications is key.
  • Many medical devices have some kind of user interface, which is typically graphical. Support for a GUI in the RTOS is clearly desirable.
  • Any portable device needs to use battery charge wisely. An RTOS with power management capabilities makes sense.
  • As medical devices need certification, a compact RTOS that has proven certifiability is essential to keep costs down.

With healthcare being seen as "in crisis" all over the world, it seems to me that the embedded software developer has the opportunity to be the "hero" and really change lives.

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