Building Better Humans (Solihull, 24 April 2009)

Human engineering was the theme of this half-day event at St. John’s Hotel, Solihull: one of several events hosted by Medilink West Midlands to explore market opportunities for the medtech industry. Past events have dealt with infection control and the ageing population; further events are planned to discuss intelligent healthcare and assistive technologies.

This event brought together almost 50 delegates from the medtech industry, the academic sphere and the health services to discuss how technology is used to repair, augment or replace parts of the human body, and why this approach is crucial for healthcare in the 21st century.

The morning included three sessions of open networking that allowed medtech professionals to meet potential allies or customers. MedtechWM describes itself as “a big dating agency” for medtech stakeholders – and while actual business is unlikely on a first date, there were many close discussions with potential for future contact.

 Chris Ramsden

Body language

The event was led by Chris Dyke, Connectivity Director, and Chris Ramsden, Connectivity Manager, Medilink WM. They began by discussing the reasons why human engineering represents a major market opportunity.

The changing demographics of the UK (and global) population are leading to a massive increase in the numbers of people dealing with long-term health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, COPD, arthritis and dementia. At the same time, there is strong economic pressure to shift the focus of healthcare from the hospital to the community.

This means that technologies are increasingly being used to ‘engineer’ the human body, in ways described by the eight Rs: repair, replace, renew, replicate, restore, recycle, refresh and re-enact. These forms of human engineering can be identified in the treatment of all body systems: musculo-skeletal, cardiovascular, reproductive and so on. There is pressure to reduce both the invasiveness of all surgical interventions and the clinical space and time they require.

The question for medtech is: how can human engineering solutions to the challenges facing healthcare be developed and commercialised in a way that is fully responsive to the needs of health providers and consumers?

More than human

Some potential answers were suggested in a powerful video by Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins. She argued that the prosthetic devices of the future should not be limited by a ‘deficiency’ model of disability: rather, it should be possible for users to be the “architects of their own bodies”, combining functional goals with sensual and imaginative ones.

The phrase creative approaches to old problems was central to the ensuing discussion. For example, the challenge of building better operating tables has led to the question: Why a table? Why not other forms of support or suspension? Another current example is the use of ‘smart’ surgical implants that can call for help: a rise in body temperature triggers an automatic e-mail to the hospital.

Other new developments in human engineering were discussed: from Bluetooth-enabled prosthetic legs that can ‘talk’ to each other to a ‘punk’ limb made of leather and steel and a fingertip with a built-in USB port. Recent developments in nanoengineering allow the electronic control system of a prosthetic arm to interface directly with the user’s nervous system.

The successful commercialisation of these solutions, it was argued, requires a three-way interaction between the medtech industry (including sales and marketing), academic research and the NHS, with the public at the centre.

Talking technology

How can these market opportunities be most effectively pursued? Tony Davis, CEO of MedilinkWM, argued that new networks and collaborations are needed to stimulate the market and ensure that new medical solutions are recognised and adopted in a difficult economic climate.

The industry needs to aim its solutions at all parts of the healthcare cycle, he said. By producing robust business cases for innovations, it can change the way healthcare is delivered and the impact it has on our lives. Medtech can play a major role in enabling patients to function independently as their own carers outside the clinical environment.

The take-home message for the delegates was that technological awareness is an enabler for all healthcare stakeholders: not just another product line to be sold in the traditional way, but a common language for suppliers, clinicians and the public.

 

Human engineering