Medical technology

How cool is too cool? Consumer trends and healthcare products

6 November 2018
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Consumers today expect their electronic products to do much more than just look good and do their job. They want more. On top of a nice modern-looking design, ‘soft’ factors, such as an intuitive user interface and useful bonus functions, are becoming increasingly important. Extra features such as an integrated streaming client can also prove popular with users. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that consumers expect every product to fit with their individual lifestyle.

And what helps shape consumer trends is increasingly influencing solutions used in a work context too – particularly medical products. But just how much influence do new technologies from the consumer goods world exert in the life sciences and healthcare sectors right now? And what should manufacturers do about it?

Whether it’s the latest smartphone, an eBook reader, a fitness tracker or a smart thermostat, nowadays we take it almost for granted that our electronic equipment will include features such as multitouch, voice control, and, ideally, ready access to information via the web.
The allpervasiveness of these features in our everyday lives is also changing our expectations of the applications we use professionally – a trend which has not spared the medical technology sector. There’s also the fact that patients are more and more becoming users of medical devices themselves. That’s true in particular for home healthcare products for chronic conditions, such as continuous glucose monitoring devices for diabetics, smart inhalers and companion apps for COPD.
New technologies such as mixed reality platforms will also radically change medical devices and related work processes, posing new challenges for manufacturers. So how can consumer trends influence the development of medical products? We decided to take a closer look at some of the key issues.

Safety

For medical products, manufacturers have to be able to guarantee that the main function and safety have been tested to destruction and have attained an exceptional level of proven reliability. With each generation of a product family, manufacturers can gradually make the product more and more robust and incrementally build safety into the design. It is easier to achieve this using tried and tested technologies than by using newer, less proven components, where there is not enough data from their use on the consumer market for failure rates and any effects of aging to be fully understood. Where newer components are used, extra consideration will have to be given to these points during risk assessment. Additional protective features may also be required.

New operating concepts

Touch is everything. Simply by watching their parents, even young children can work out how to use a tablet. (You can imagine their disappointment when it doesn’t work on a book.)

But is a consumer trend like touch or gesture control always the best solution? As well as cleaning and disinfection, sensitivity when wearing a range of gloves and – most importantly – manufacturing costs, other important points to consider are speed, and avoiding ambiguity during operation. Right now it is probably still better to stick with simple doublepole switches for quickly setting the energy on a defibrillator or to have dedicated buttons for specifying the bolus volume on an infusion pump.

Data protection

Though to the user it might not seem so important, manufacturers nonetheless have to tread extremely carefully when it comes to data protection and IT security. Until recently, medical devices were only connected to isolated networks with no connection to the outside world. But today’s always connected mentality – another consumer trend – is changing perceptions of critical data and IT systems, and creating an expectation that medical devices will be able to use the same apps as a normal tablet.

In this case it’s all about the implementation. A Skype call from a tablet to seek the opinion of a specialist during an operation is without doubt very practical. But does an endoscopy system or a heart monitor really need to include a browser with a range of third party plugins? As well as the issue of practicability, the key point here is security. With increased connectivity and extra features comes an increased workload for security analysis and security management.
As well as visible changes to the product, manufacturers also need to consider the farreaching effects on their internal processes, ranging from product development and product support to overall product management.

Shorter product life cycles

Shortening development life cycles for consumer products can mean large numbers of changes and new features in quick succession. For medical products, this has to be balanced against the time-consuming development, validation and licensing process.

New possibilities – and with them user expectations – appear so quickly that conventional development project planning can find itself overtaken by events. Agile approaches allow developers to respond to changes over the course of a project and even to start out with a staged roadmap.

Longer lasting products

Because medical technology products often have a life span of several years, unless they can be updated or upgraded in situ they gradually start to look outdated and unattractive. Obsolescence management needs to be in place for components (in terms both of ongoing manufacturing and replacement parts) in case the primary market for the components disappears. This can be made simpler by using a well-designed system architecture with modularisation and segregation of safety-relevant subsystems. Without these, changes can be time-consuming and expensive.

Pricing pressure

The medical technology sector is just as subject to pricing pressures as any other. It’s important to realise that mass market components are not necessarily cheaper than an existing solution. A touchscreen for setting a temperature, for example, is still pricier than a few knobs with a monochrome visual display. Here again, modular platform solutions are a good approach to enabling differentiation of products for different market segments and regions. By using the same components in multiple products, this approach also results in larger component volumes.

Cool? Or not so cool? In my view the medical product and allied sectors need to prepare for shorter update and release cycles, and they should do so by making both their research and development and their portfolio management more agile. A systematic approach can be a big help. That might mean starting out by using Scrum within one development team or it could mean deploying SAFe organisation-wide.

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