For years, the medical industry has talked about moving critical parts of healthcare from the hospital to home. Deployment roadmaps described how over the next 10-20 years we’d build systems for patients that would allow doctors to monitor, analyze, diagnose, and treat their patients remotely. The roadmaps included medical devices, analytical tools, communication channels, and the infrastructure needed to enable the seamless support required for everything to work.
With COVID-19, it looks like we’re going to be locked down for a long time, and no one knows the end game. But what we do know is that the pandemic has made telemedicine more important now than we thought it would be in the next decade. However, we don’t have a decade to put an infrastructure in place—we need it today.
These new realities create an imperative to accelerate advances in telemedicine. To make this happen, medical-equipment manufacturers need to find ways to shrink their product-development cycle without compromising system performance or reliability. One way to achieve this is to simplify their component supply chain.
For example, the electronics inside a medical device can be very complex. Different sensors are required to collect data from a patient. Such data must be stored and processed without compromising its accuracy or precision. And, finally, the device must be able to act on the data, perhaps by transmitting to a data-analytics tool in the cloud or to the healthcare provider, or by taking autonomous action such as turning on an actuator in a glucose monitor to dispense insulin.
While you may hear a lot of promotion about the efficiencies of “one-stop shopping” for electronic components, there’s something to be said about working with a vendor capable of supplying virtually all of your system’s bill of materials. After all, it’s easier to start from an existing reference design than to figure out how to build a circuit from scratch with components from several vendors.
Design complexities grow for connected medical devices that combine many different technologies. Wearables require low power processing, efficient wireless connectivity, and increasing autonomy and intelligence. Rather than reinvent each of these technologies, OEMs need access to development modules and platforms to jumpstart their development.
Consider that it can take months to put together and evaluate an intelligent system. When you take into account the time to evaluate, select, and integrate all of the other components in a system, it may require years to design and launch a new product. With COVID-19, OEMs don’t have the luxury of years.
What’s needed here is trust with accountability. As electronic devices become more complex, it becomes impossible for an OEM to design everything in-house. To deliver reliable products in a timely fashion, they need electronics they can trust to be reliable. They also need partners who can be trusted to deliver technology that “just works” and can scale. And these partners will provide leading-edge technology, production-ready modules, integrated development platforms, and technical support that can shave years from development schedules.
Reliability is essential to telemedicine and can’t be compromised regardless of timelines. High precision, accuracy, and real-time responsiveness are the baseline. For devices embedded in the body, reliability must reach an even higher bar.
Various factors affect home-care reliability. Excessive latency or unreliable connectivity to the cloud, for example, impacts many applications that require rapid response. For this reason, more and more functionality is moving out of the cloud and closer to the edge. This requires devices to have more processing resources, more memory, and better power efficiency.
Telemedicine devices need to eliminate the communication link as a single point of failure given that there are numerous—and common—scenarios where a patient might be without network access for extended periods of time. It might be all right if Alexa can’t turn off your bedroom lights when the internet goes out, but a passenger on a cruise ship can’t wait till the next port to receive insulin from a dispenser.
Memory plays an important role in enabling devices to provide high reliability. Firmware and application code can’t be corrupted. For this, high-reliability NOR flash assures that program code is maintained without errors. NOR flash also protects key parameters such as a patient’s individual settings to assure reliable device operation.
For applications that require data logging, non-volatile ferroelectric RAM (FRAM) memory offers virtually unlimited endurance with low power operation. With an extensive data log, a device can track every interaction it has had with a patient and maintain a complete history in the device. This log can also be uploaded to the cloud when a connection is available. Having the log local to the device, though, assures that medical equipment will be able to operate autonomously when it absolutely must.
Both NOR flash and FRAM are designed to maintain data integrity. By using high-reliability memories, OEMs can trust that their code and data will always be accurate.
Delivering Tomorrow Today
For OEMs to accelerate their development, semiconductor manufacturers must meet the portfolio, performance, and partnership challenges ahead. Fortunately, some are already ahead of the curve. For instance, Infineon Technologies is collaborating with medical OEMs to deliver a wide range of purpose-built memory products, including NOR flash, FRAM, and low-power SRAM.
Infineon says that each memory product, from its conception, is designed to support the most demanding applications, from high-volume automotive products to the harshest environments of space. Medical-equipment OEMs can leverage the intrinsic quality and reliability standards implemented as memory products are defined and developed.
To address COVID-19, with additional pressure to deliver widely available telemedicine and all that goes with it, medical OEMs will scramble to perform. They need to compress five years of deployment into one. And they will. Medical-equipment pipelines are filled with innovative developments and, with help from their component partners, products can be realized to meet the overwhelming demand created by these extraordinary events.