Healthcare Trends Drive Design Requirements

Multicore offers opportunities for medical device manufacturers, but overall adoption is slow.

By Cheryl Coupé, Senior Editor

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VDC Analyst Jared Weiner

Medical device requirements vary dramatically, from pace makers to room-sized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, but some common demands are driving innovation. Requirements such as improved imaging capabilities, secure connectivity and interactive, customized interfaces are making multicore and virtualized architectures more attractive for many of these designs.

Multicore processors can help medical device developers meet specifications for light weight, low power consumption and low heat dissipation in a wide range of equipment. For mobile medical devices – as with mobile devices of any kind – one of the most important factors is battery power. Multicore designs that enable cores to power down when their processes aren’t running can extend battery life, offering advantages for equipment used in busy clinical settings as well as home medical devices, for which long battery life may help improve patient compliance. For large medical equipment, such as ultrasound machines, x-ray systems and some patient-monitoring devices, high-performance multicore processors help meet high-definition and 3D-imaging requirements with faster response time and increased throughput. And with continued interest by healthcare facilities in cutting power costs and environmental footprints, multicore’s power-management capabilities may become more attractive even for large equipment.

But significant moves to multicore and virtualization in medical – and in embedded markets overall – still haven’t occurred according to Jared Weiner, analyst in the VDC Research Embedded Software Practice. While companies continue to project growth in that area, Weiner says sometimes they can get a bit ahead of themselves. That seems to be the case with regard to the use of multicore processors in general. “We’ve been hearing for years that this is the year we’re going to see really significant growth in the use of multicore processors,” Weiner says. “Then each year we get our end-user survey and there’s maybe a small incremental growth, but certainly nothing to the magnitude that vendors and other people in the field have indicated. Certainly there will be an impact, but I would look further out for when a significant change will occur.”

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2011 Embedded Software & Tools Market Intelligence Service, Track 1: Embedded Software Engineering Market Technologies & Statistics, Volume 7: Vertical Markets & Applications.© Copyright 2012 VDC Research Group, Inc.

A new trend that Weiner noted was the increased interest in Android by medical device manufacturers. While he isn’t aware of specific Android-based medical devices coming to market yet, developers are asking about it – primarily for its graphical capabilities and customizability. Weiner believes this direction could be a good fit with multicore, which would allow the use of Android along with a real-time operating system (RTOS) in a virtualized environment. This would allow the developer to take advantage of Android’s strengths – such as customization, touchscreen-based user interface, high-quality and 3-D graphics – while running sensitive or critical processes, including transmitting sensitive patient information on the cloud, on a separate core. While Android has yet to make a dent in medical devices, Microsoft Windows continues to play a role there, and provides similar advantages in virtualization.

Another trend Weiner has observed is the growth in the use of handheld or mobile medical devices. He attributes this to a number of converging effects, but certainly the aging Baby Boomer population is a significant element. In the U.S., hospitals are dealing with overcrowding through the use of technologies such as telemedicine and other approaches that allow care to be offered remotely – in the home or other types of care facilities – with data securely uploaded to the care provider. At the same time, emerging markets such as China, Brazil and parts of Eastern Europe are using telemedicine and mobile medical devices to bring care to remote areas where traditional healthcare facilities don’t exist. Even as the majority of software vendors Weiner talks to are pointing to these emerging regions as areas where they expect to see significant growth, he says large-scale changes are not occurring yet. The big spenders in terms of medical devices are still in North America, with the U.S. far ahead of these emerging markets in terms of adoption of large, complicated and expensive systems. He expects that investments in emerging markets may be less cutting-edge and more about getting basic care out to people who need it.

On the other hand, healthcare reform will continue to impact the U.S. market. VDC Research published its Vertical Markets and Applications report in January 2012, which covered several vertical markets including automotive, consumer, industrial and medical. The report looked at three to five specific applications within each vertical; in medical, that included defibrillators, ultrasound scanning devices and nuclear medicine equipment. Nuclear medicine uses small amounts of radiopharmaceuticals to image and treat the human body. It’s a relatively new technology that uses large devices and is costly to administer. Despite its innovation and medical successes, recent changes to reimbursement allowances (including Medicare) have prompted providers to reexamine their use of nuclear medicine in order to control patient expenses. Primarily because of these changes, VDC is forecasting minimal growth in this sector in the near term.

 


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Cheryl Berglund Coupé is editor of EECatalog.com. Her articles have appeared in EE Times, Electronic Business, Microsoft Embedded Review and Windows Developer’s Journal and she has developed presentations for the Embedded Systems Conference and ICSPAT. She has held a variety of production, technical marketing and writing positions within technology companies and agencies in the Northwest.