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New Challenges to The Shrinking of Medical Devices

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In Brief

The sizes of medical devices are consistently trending smaller, a trend that is making a huge difference in the healthcare industry. These devices, including pacemakers, stents, lenses, cochlear implants, implantable glucose monitors, and infusion pumps create substantial improvements to patient care. Advanced flexible materials have powered these product improvements, however, there are some trade-offs and a few challenges with this trend. The following are a few things to consider about the shrinking medical device revolution.

Positive Developments 

The obvious advantage to miniaturizing medical devices - especially implantables - is that it reduces the need for highly invasive surgeries and decreases patient recovery time. Flexible materials can be precisely placed into regions of the body to prevent nerve damage or other pain-inducing phenomena. Cordis' S.M.A.R.T® Flex Stent System utilizes flexible shape-memory materials and cobalt-chromium superalloys as a way to optimize utility.

Skilled medical professionals understand precision placement is of the utmost importance when placing these devices to minimize potential impacts and side-effects. A recent pacemaker on the market, the Medtronic Micra is a miniature pacemaker that is placed directly inside the heart chamber, unlike conventional pacemakers that are placed under the skin and require lead wires to connect to the heart. Not only does the device use flexible materials, so do the tools utilized to implant it.

Ancillary technology also continues to make shrinking medical devices more accurate and reliable. Advancements in 3D printing technology have lead to huge growth in the 3D printing of medical devices. So much so, that the combined medical and dental sectors make up the third largest 3D printing market after industrial and aerospace sectors. This has resulted in a wide array of new devices. The field of micro-optics has been aided in a number of areas including endoscopy, biometric scanning, monitoring, diagnostics, and spectrometers. It is now possible to manufacture custom micro/nano lenses to a high degree of accuracy and reproducibility quickly and cheaply. As 3D printing technology continues to advance, the ability to create devices with more precision, a higher degree of complexity, and at lower cost will also increase.

Lastly, shrinking electronic medical devices are also much less conspicuous. Patients that carry around heavy or bulky devices may be inconvenienced and have a negative impact on their lifestyle.

Lingering Challenges 

Heat regulation is an important issue for devices that are electrically powered. Small devices have a much larger surface area as a percentage of their size than larger devices do. This means heat regulation can be more complicated to control.

Smaller medical devices need to be more robust than larger ones. All of the component sizes must be smaller yet they still have to deliver the same results and be equally impervious to damage. That means product developers have to be sure that the composite material is extremely durable. For that reason, companies are continuing to experiment with different plating processes, coatings, and creative molding techniques.

Additionally, the expertise to properly insert these devices has not yet reached the entire medical profession. Surgeons are researching and learning about these shrinking devices, but they may be more comfortable with the traditional ones. Similarly, other medical staff including nurses and hospital personnel do not yet all feel comfortable providing advice on the proper method of utilizing these devices. For that reason, much education is still needed.

 

While there have been significant studies of these devices in a controlled lab setting, they have still not come into massive wide-spread usage, so it is still possible that as they are phased into use there might be instances which bring to light issues that lead to product adjustments in the future.

 

Summary
Overall, the shrinking electrical medical device revolution is having a tremendously positive impact on patient outcomes and health. New, flexible materials are leading the way to produce rapid gains in technology. While there are still significant challenges, these will hopefully be addressed over time.

 

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