Monday, February 07, 2011

When smartphones disrupt medical devices

I'm here at the Medical Design & Manufacturing (MD&M) West conference, one of several shows running concurrently in the Anaheim, CA convention center this week.

Along with the trade show, there is an excellent conference program. I am especially interested the tracks on disruptive technologies in the medical device industry as well as updates on the regulatory environment with the US Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory bodies globally.

Here are some highlights of what I've heard so far.

Global competition for innovation

Tracy Lefteroff of Pricewaterhouse Coopers outlined opportunities and barriers in worldwide medical device innovation, based on a PwC survey.

The results are not good for the US.
  • The US is becoming increasingly unfriendly to innovation. Israel is the easiest place to get regulatory approval for new medical device technologies, followed by the EU and India. The US ranks lower down the list. So, if you need treatment involving innovative technology, you may need to go outside the US.
  • The US carries the highest cost per hospital bed, and fewer beds per capita than any other global region--by far.
  • Industry participants expect that the regulatory environment in the US will become even more restrictive in the future.
  • On the positive side, the US is still the best place to raise money for new medical technologies and it also one of the easiest markets to enter, once you have an approved product.
There may be hope, however. Lefteroff reports great interest in Washington to see the regulatory environment improve. Why? Jobs in the medical device industry are leaving the US for more friendly jurisdictions, and in the current environment, anything we can do to improve the employment situation is attractive, on both sides of the political aisle.

Disruptive technologies in the medical device industry

Jeff Brown from UBM TechInsights followed with an insightful look at how consumer technologies are disrupting established ways of addressing patient needs. Brown showed as new technologies reach critical mass, their IP is often transfered into other established technologies, disrupting them and driving down the cost and size of the established products. For example, digital camera capabilities increased and the cost dropped to the point that the technology could be incorporated into cell phones. Today, many consumers do not carry digital cameras, as the cameras in their cell phones are "good enough."

Although Brown covered several disruptive technologies in the medical device industry, much of his presentation focused on how smartphones (e.g. Apple's iPhone) are becoming and will become part of future so-called mobile health (mHealth) solutions.

For example:
  • The AliveCor EKG sleeve turns your iPhone into an electrocardiogram monitor. Note however that the device is not cleared for marketing in the US. More on that issue in a minute.
  • iStethoscope Expert, a free primitive iPhone application, uses the native microphone in the iPhone to listen to and record your heartbeat.
  • Hearing aids, which at the high-end can cost thousands of dollars, are about to be disrupted by blue tooth earpieces connected to smartphones.
In these and many other examples, Brown pointed out the tremendous improvement in capability that comes when standalone devices (e.g. hearing aids, stethoscopes, EKG monitors) are replaced by devices that connect to smartphones. They not only perform the same function as the device they are displacing but they can go beyond with their ability to record and store data and to communicate with other devices.

For example, a traditional hearing aid can only do one thing: help you listen better. But a hearing aid that is connected to a smart phone can take advantage of the smart phone's capability to record and store conversations. In fact, a smartphone could take that recorded conversation and convert it into text and email it to you. One can imagine many applications, even for people that are not hearing impaired.

Innovation vs. regulation

Brown briefly covered the regulatory issues that constrain the convergence of new technologies with medical device solutions. Current FDA regulations treats many of these new applications and distruptive technologies as medical devices, depending on their intended use to diagnose or treat disease, or to affect the structure or function of the human body. This classification puts FDA squarely in the middle of commercialization of such products.

As Lefteroff indicated earlier, other jurisdictions are friendlier environments for introduction of these new converged technologies. It may be that some of these solutions will take hold first in developing countries, where their low cost and "good enough" capabilities will allow them to be perfected and proven.

It is ironic that, while the underlying technologies may have been developed by US companies (e.g Apple), their application as medical devices may only come to the US after they have been established and proven in other geographies.

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