From discovering the circulatory system in 1616 to performing the first heart transplant in 1967, the world of medicine has long been one of experimentation and innovation. Today, it is also a booming business and significant contributor to the wordwide economy. The global estimate for spending on healthcare is a staggering US$6.5 trillion. The market size for medical technology devices is nearly US$400 billion worldwide, with semiconductors driving many advancements – especially in mobile and connected devices. In fact, the market for medical chips is set to rise to US$10 billion in 2018. Here we take a look at the growing role of semiconductors in the healthcare industry.
Many devices used in healthcare depend on semiconductor manufacturing technology. These include sensors and motion micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS); communication integrated circuits (ICs); microcontrollers; discrete devices; memory power management devices; and analog, digital, and mixed-signal ICs. These devices are driving a host of applications in fields such as clinical diagnostics and therapy, medical imaging, and portable and home healthcare. Semiconductor-enabled equipment such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, pacemakers, blood pressure monitors, chemistry/blood gas analyzers, and bedside and wireless patient monitors are changing lives today. Highly specialized equipment is also becoming available, such as an implanted adaptive cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) device used to help improve the heart’s rhythm.
With new equipment models and advances in healthcare services, semiconductor tech is helping take the medical industry to a whole new level. For example, some surgery procedures are being revolutionized through the use of robotic surgical systems. One such system allows the surgeon to sit in a “cockpit” with a 3D view of the operating field and precisely maneuver surgical instruments attached to robotic arms. This procedure enables minimally invasive surgery, which means faster recovery time for patients, while the system’s enhanced visualization also means less eye strain for the surgeon. Neuromorphic chip technology, which can mimic the human brain, can be used in applications such as retinal implants, helping people who have lost their sight to regain partial vision.
Connected healthcare is also on the rise. Sensors and wireless technology are enabling connected devices to provide a whole new world of remote patient monitoring and virtual service delivery. Solutions are being developed to harness the data from connected devices and integrate patient data securely across the entire healthcare ecosystem. This capability will enable hospitals to collect vital data from a range of medical devices, analyze the information, and provide status and performance updates across the organization. Other solutions help patients transition from hospital to home with data captured from medical devices made possible through remote healthcare connectivity.
Technology is not only helping people in their own homes, it is also bringing healthcare to remote areas. In China, for example, screening for cardiovascular disease in rural areas can be done by electrocardiography (ECG) sensing smartphones. These are used to collect and send data wirelessly to cardiac specialists in Beijing for analysis and real-time feedback. Meanwhile, semiconductors in sensors developed for consumer electronics are fueling the rise in drones, which are finding some interesting uses. For example, Silicon Valley start-up Zipline International is using drones to deliver medical supplies to hospitals and health clinics across the Republic of Rwanda in Africa. Hospitals can place an order for blood or medicine by text message, and the drones use a global positioning system (GPS) and Rwanda’s cellular network to navigate and deliver the packages.
Predictions for the coming years include more healthcare taking place in the home. Web-integrated wireless devices may be used to manage doctor-patient interactions, and digital diagnostic tools could enable remote examinations. Wearables will be used to monitor sick patients and enable the home to become an extension of the hospital, thereby reducing the length of hospital stays. Remote surgical experts may be able to guide onsite surgeons or robots through tele-mentoring, and there may even be 3D printing of medical devices and organs.
Market research indicates that semiconductors will remain a key factor in the demand for medical device and application advances, ensuring new and creative ways of providing healthcare for years to come.
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