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Medtronic Sees a High-Tech Solution to Global Health Woes

Sensors and smartphones could give 4 billion people access to health care

2 min read
Medtronic Sees a High-Tech Solution to Global Health Woes
Medtronic's next-gen pacemaker points the way to tiny implantable sensors and therapeutic devices.
Photo: Medtronic

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If you believe that health care is a human right, as does Stephen Oesterle, Medtronic's VP of medicine and technology, you need to look for global health solutions that scale up. "We can't build enough hospitals or train enough physicians to take care of all these people," Oesterle says. The answer, he says, is a distributed model of medicine in which we put sensors in people's bodies and "a physician in every phone."

Medtronic is known for making pacemakers, brain implants, and other sophisticated medical devices that cost a pretty penny and are therefore primarily available to patients in the developed world. That's a market of about 1.5 billion people, Oesterle said in a talk at last week's meeting of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. Another 1.5 billion people around the world have access to some rudimentary heath care, and 4 billion others have none. Oesterle is calling on engineers to design the tech that will bring medical care to these masses.

In a conversation with Spectrum, Oesterle elaborated on his vision. He says that he drew inspiration from a visit to a hospital in Chengdu, the capital city of China's Sichuan province. The hospital (pictured at right) is the world's largest with 8000 beds, and it's being enlarged to reach a total of 12,000 beds. And then there are the outpatients: 4.5 million of them each year. "People take trains across western China and queue up all day to get one minute with the doctor," Oesterle says. He thinks it would simply be better medicine to distribute diagnostic and therapeutic technologies to all these people where they live.

Such a system would be enabled by implanted and wearable sensors that can monitor vital signs and metrics of chronic ailments like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. These sensors would send continuous streams of data to a phone or to the cloud for automatic analysis, and any red flags could trigger alerts for the patient or an off-site physician. The alert could even trigger an implanted therapeutic device to deliver a dose of medicine or a jolt of electricity.

While many people think of infectious disease as the biggest heath threat in the developing world, non-communicable diseases are actually the most frequent causes of death everywhere except Africa, and their prevalence on that continent is increasing rapidly. The World Health Organization reports that 80 percent of deaths from non-communicative diseases occur in low- and middle-income countries.

Medtronic's work on pacemakers points the way toward other implantable therapeutic devices, Oesterle says. The company's engineers have already built an experimental, next-gen pacemaker that's smaller than Abraham Lincoln's head on the penny (pictured above). Such an implant "could go anywhere," Oesterle says, and electrical stimulation could potentially treat a number of conditions (see the slide below). "Everything in the body is electrically active, and we know we can modulate these systems," he says. "This is something electrical engineers can solve—so get busy."

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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