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Making medical devices smarter using force sensors

27 May 2015  | Brian Buntz

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The field of medicine has gone a long way from simply using leaves, concoctions and outrageous remedies to one that is extremely technologically-advanced with medical contraptions that seem to have been taken straight out of a science fiction movie.

The practice of medicine has always been an art as well as a science. But, in the age of value-based care, the balance between those two is shifting in favour of the latter. Sensor-enabled medical devices are playing an important role in the trend.

In healthcare in the 21st century, data is king. Number crunchers in hospitals' procurement departments now wield considerable influence in the healthcare landscape. And group purchasing organisations (GPOs) are emerging as the Costco of healthcare, buying products in huge quantities and then selling them at discounted rates to members.

But healthcare needs more than hawking medical products at discounted rates; it needs a way to gauge their efficacy. It needs smarter medical devices.

FlexiForce sensor

The FlexiForce sensor from Tekscan is an example of a product that can help make medical devices smarter.

A growing number of sensor-enabled medical devices are hitting the market, providing metrics for diagnoses and helping systematise how doctors deliver treatments.

Surgical tools are one example that could benefit from such technology. In the past, surgeons relied heavily on their training and experience to guide them in a procedure. Whether they squeezed a surgical instrument with the correct amount of pressure was determined largely based on experience.

Now, force sensors can be integrated into surgical grippers to help surgeons get a sense of the force they are applying. "The sensors can provide a surgeon with the feedback during a procedure that helps them avoid cutting a vital organ or vein," said Lisa Jones, marketing specialist, FlexiForce at Tekscan (South Boston, MA).

The problem is compounded by minimally invasive surgery, which has made an array of surgeries far less traumatic, but has taken away tactile feedback from surgeons.

Cambridge Research & Development has worked to bring haptic feedback to minimally invasive procedures, providing a surgeon with precise feedback, enabling them to feel as well as see what they are doing in a procedure.

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