Aidan Petrie, from design, engineering firm Ximedica, explains what it takes to be at the forefront of innovation in medical device design.
“There’s no other area where industrial design can better use modern technology” than in the medical field, says Aidan Petrie, co-founder and CIO for Ximedica.
And he would know, given his 25 years’ experience driving innovation in medical device development, consumer healthcare products, and human-centered provider systems.
I’m encouraged to hear him say that, having spent the past few decades myself writing about a digital revolution that has yet to impact healthcare as it has in virtually every other field.*
*About this series
The digital revolution has yet to impact healthcare as it has in virtually every other field, and that means opportunity for electrical engineers.
After a 70-day hospitalization five years ago, I was amazed to see how healthcare seemed inoculated from electronics. There was very little electronic communications then between physicians and surgeon, let alone patients. That meant I had to carry my files from one doctor to the next, and sometimes even translate one specialist’s note to another.
That’s beginning to change, but the cultural and communications chasm between digital and medical is still wide and deep.
So having a very personal interest in this whole matter, I’ve spent the past few years meeting, greeting, reading and connecting with a host of experts on both sides of this divide. One surprise is to see how little the medical side recognizes the many contributions that embedded electronics is making in the new generation of medical devices.
For many years, design considerations were on the periphery of medicine. But that’s changing now and quickly, as if to make up for lost time. In this series of interviews with major players in the healthcare industry, I will explore these themes. Look for a new interview a week for the next three weeks.
—Tom Mahon has written about technology for 40 years as publicist, journalist, novelist, dramatist and activist. More about Tom.
Read more from this series:
Aidan Petrie describes himself as “living at the front end of innovation in the medical space.” His focus and that of Ximedica, the company he co-founded in 1985 with Stephen Lane, is to build a robust but nimble product development process within an FDA-regulated industry with a particular eye to usability and human factors.
“We’re the largest U.S. firm developing medical devices. We’re ‘guns for hire,’ in that we sell our expertise to a global client base to develop medical technology under contract, and then get it through FDA approvals, though we don’t do any manufacturing.
“On our staff of 200 we have designers, researchers, human factor engineers and at least 15 electronic engineers. We’re adopting the Silicon Valley model: small and nimble.” Recently, for example, the company developed a U-shaped circuit board for a cordless, hand-piece dental polisher. (See photo.)
Discus Zen (acquired by Philips in 2010) asked Ximedica for an engineering solution for its newest prophy (a dental cleaning device). Ximedica’s mechanical, electrical and software engineering teams implemented a solution that met product specifications, and fit inside the small predetermined shape of the shell. Among the team’s solutions was a U-shaped circuit board to meet the tight spatial constraints.
“Our project teams typically consist of a small core group that travels with a program from start to finish, and then brings resources in and out as defined by the program phase," explained Petrie. "In the early stages, for example, user insight, usability, industrial design and technical innovation are the heavy emphasis. Later in the process, engineers take over the heavy lifting. Finally, the rigors of the FDA requirements kick in and so quality assurance and compliance take over there.”
Petrie received his undergraduate degree from Central St. Martins (UK) in product design/engineering, and a Masters in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). He still teaches design leadership at RISD; lectures at MIT and Harvard; and advises numerous startups.
He is quick to point out that although it’s called the IoHT (Internet of Healthcare Things), what’s happening is about much more than health and wellness consumer products like step counters.
Instead, IoHT is evolving to include complex surgical systems in hospitals and outpatient clinics; wearable therapeutics for patient rehabilitation; and home monitors to assure such things as drug compliance. And as all these designed devices increasingly connect with each other, they advance the concept of a continuity of care.
Continuity of care
This concept is an important outgrowth of a current (and very disruptive) transition in healthcare, from volume to value-based pricing.
Aidan Petrie, co-founder & CIO for Ximedica
The traditional volume-based model holds that if an operation isn’t successful, a second procedure is needed and the patient is billed for that in addition to the first procedure. Under the new value-based pricing model, the surgeon is paid when the tonsils are out, even if it takes three operations.
(This radical idea isn’t really that radical. If you order a steak in a restaurant and it comes burnt, the restaurant serves you a new order and doesn’t charge for two steaks.)
To navigate this new payment landscape, insurers demand that hospitals provide data showing outcomes, not simply compliance with the rules. And that requires evidence of excellent and coordinated care, not only from doctors, surgeons, nurses, therapists and patients, but even from the kitchen and housekeeping staffs as well.
All this seeks to create a human-centered approach to healthcare that looks beyond hard data to “softer,” higher-level qualitative improvements.
So there is evident value in connecting devices to result in a demonstrable continuity of care, and embedded hardware and software will play a big role in that.
Which leads Petrie to say, “There are exciting disruptions ahead for medical device technology and development.”
“Connectivity of devices and technologies is opening up the previously tight and controlled world of medtech by allowing data to be accessed by multiple constituents for a myriad of reasons,” he says, explaining that:
Companies like Apple and Google are interested in the pipeline that health data opens up. Pharmacy chains are interested in creating loyalty and adherence programs. Therapeutic device makers and drug companies are all about adherence, but also the additional learning and segmentation that data can provide. Ditto the insurance companies. So who is being disrupted? Mostly the established device makers who now have to navigate through a sea of change. But this is an opportunity for them, as well.
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