The rise of low cost medical tech

Doctor's bag - Guest post

Open source medical technology has a long way to go. Yet, it has a lot of potential. In this guest post US-based tech writer Nicholas Filler describes alternatives to the often-expensive IT systems used in healthcare. 

According to the Federal Long Term Care Insurance website, home care in the US costs on average US$29,640 per year. This is an outrageous number when it comes to basic care within your home. But there is technology on the rise that could help patients at a very low cost, and it’s coming from the open source community.

Open source is defined as ‘any program whose source code is made available for use or modification as users or other developers see fit – open source software is usually developed as a public collaboration and made freely available.’ This means that anyone can download or modify the code as they see fit for any project that they are working on.

The software is useful in the medical field because it can be modified for any individual or illness. By using this type of software in combination with open source hardware, low-cost medical accessibility is now becoming a reality.

e_health_sensors_small

The open source e-health sensor platform. Image: Cooking Hacks

The Raspberry pi is a single board, US$35 computer that was introduced by the educational charity The Raspberry Pi Foundation, and was formed within the United Kingdom. The computer was introduced for production February 29th, 2012, and has been a staple of the open source community. There are a variety of websites that offer on-site tools in which you can learn how to develop for it, and some blogs have built strong communities based around this technology.

After the launch of the Raspberry Pi came a device called the E-Health Sensor Platform, launched in 2013. Although it is clearly stated that it should not be used to monitor critical patients and has no medical certification, it was designed and built for measuring biometric data and experimentation purposes. This would allow individuals to start a small health informatics data pool regarding their personal health and allow them to monitor not only their daily activity but their lifestyle.

Big data is still hard to filter and compile into useful information. Most of the time it ends in convoluted excel sheets or something difficult to read, especially if you were giving the information that you compiled from a Raspberry Pi to your doctor. Doctors might not be familiar with the type of data that it is producing, when compared to certified medical machines. But at least it’s a move in the right direction.

Technology is becoming integrated in our daily lives and free programing languages like ‘R’, which are designed to handle heavy statistical data, are allowing people to understand these large sets of data. ‘R’ is a programming language that anyone can learn, and like the hardware, is completely open source. This would allow various medical professionals to personally tailor their data sets according to their needs. Ideally this would make reading and understanding data sets easier.

Integration with open source programming and hardware could greatly improve data analysis, and drastically affect the way long-term studies are conducted in terms of cost and time. For example, these types of programming languages have been used to improve spending on inefficient processes and equipment.

As the medical field continues to rapidly change, expensive medically licensed technology used to monitor patients will remain the standard. But low-cost solutions are becoming a possibility and should be looked at with hopeful admiration. These devices might not be certified at the moment but they can compile a variety of valuable information at a fraction of the cost.

Whether it be an education project for home or monitoring important vital signs for research, open source systems can be used in various healthcare settings. Only time will tell how these projects develop, but hopefully they will make medical technology less expensive in the near future.

Nicholas Filler is a technical writer and lives in Idaho, US. He has in interest in technology, education and medicine. He studied English at Boise State University.

Disclaimer and disclosure notice.

3 thoughts on “The rise of low cost medical tech

  1. Open source is the present and the future!

    It is a key ‘ingredient’ of exponential industries and I think the potential is great.

    2 specific examples that jump to mind when it comes to the medical sector and the dropping cost of tech:

    1 – DNA sequencing (allowing us to predict and prevent conditions before they arise) – great article on costs here: http://www.nature.com/news/technology-the-1-000-genome-1.14901

    2 – The tricorder X-prize – to be awarded to (from the Wikipedia definition): “offering an automatic non-invasive health diagnostics packaged into a single portable device that weighs no more than 5 pounds (2.3 kg), able to diagnose over a dozen medical conditions, including whooping cough, hypertension, mononucleosis, shingles, melanoma, HIV, and osteoporosis.”

    Primary source – http://tricorder.xprize.org/

    I think it will see our roles as medical professionals change as well (significantly at that). I hope that we embrace the change rather than fight it (realizing that the tech is not here to replace us but to assist us).

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  2. One application could be for multi-channel recording of physiological variables in response to single doses of specific nutrients. This was done manually by a brilliant naturopath I could have learned more from, now deceased. He recorded acute changes in temperature, blood pressure, skin blood flow, pulse etc after a dose of each nutrient. These were compared with expected, to identify beneficial responses. He was able to compress treatment otherwise needing months of experimentation, into days.

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