Over the course of my career in academic and industrial R&D - and now in leading this consulting practice at Accenture - I’ve been fascinated by medical devices. From the complex machines used in hospitals to the much simpler ones available to all of us for home use, these devices make a real difference in patients’ lives. And right now, we’re on the cusp of a remarkable step forward, with connected devices driving change at a rapid pace.
When I’m talking with MedTech companies, we often discuss how to add connectivity to devices. Why? The goal is to improve health outcomes. One way to do this is by making data available to patients and their physicians. But only in ways that keeps the data secure, so it doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.
Adding connectivity to MedTech devices is no simple matter
Often, there are many challenges for MedTech companies that want to add connectivity to their devices. For one, there’s a significant gap between ambition and the current reality. Almost all companies want to put new digital business models in place. But the capabilities of their old medical devices make that difficult - some devices have architectures that are 20 or even 30 years old. Also, many MedTech companies have little experience with connectivity. And with connectivity always comes the need for solid cyber security. MedTech companies tend to have little to no experience in this area or lack urgently required expertise.
A further issue is that most traditional MedTech companies are driven by a product or engineering development mindset. That was a successful approach in the past for large pieces of equipment with long lead times. However, in today’s world, time to market is critical. Plus, we now expect solutions designed around the needs of patients, their relatives, nurses and other caregivers. This is what we call human-centered design.
There’s also been a move toward care at home, with hospital devices being repurposed as connected home products. This might seem like an obvious step. But getting a device connected and changing its design is not enough. Companies need to understand not just the home user, but the whole environment. Remember, at home, there’s no professional operator or nurse, just ordinary people like you and me. Or the device might be used by an elderly person with visual or cognitive impairments. So, it needs to be intuitive to use by everyone, without a medical education. There could also be logistical issues. Think sterility, consumables, maintenance, medical waste and privacy. Hence, just moving the device from the hospital to the bedroom will not work—the whole workflow needs to be carefully evaluated and solutions need to be tailored toward the home environment.
The benefits of more direct patient engagement are worth pursuing
Nevertheless, connected medical devices do offer numerous benefits, including the opportunity for direct patient engagement and bringing the patient into closer interaction with caregivers in a way that is most compatible with their lifestyle. In some cases, connected devices could reduce the need for hospital visits, for example, by:
- Supporting remote diagnosis.
- Helping nurses or physicians remotely interact with the patient.
- Enabling remote adjustments to devices.
- Allowing ad-hoc troubleshooting.
- Bringing diagnosis and treatment closer together.
Imagine this scenario: A patient presents with back pain. The doctor gives the patient a prescription for medical imaging. The technician performs the imaging and gives the patient a CD with the images to take back to the doctor. The doctor views the images and gives the patient a prescription for physiotherapy. The physical therapist performs the therapy based on the prescription, without seeing the images or aligning with the doctor. For most of us this is still reality - in a world where almost everything else is smart and connected.
Now imagine if the data from all these disparate sources was available on a single platform and accessible to everyone who needed it. The doctor would enter the patient’s history of symptoms. The technician would perform the imaging based on a full picture of the patient’s symptoms and the doctor’s directions. The connected imaging device would upload the images automatically to the patient’s file. And the doctor and physical therapist would both be able to view the images to decide on a suitable course of treatment. This 360° view of the patient’s data could enable a more precise diagnosis, better care and an improved outcome.
Specialized service providers can help to solve connectivity challenges
MedTech companies can overcome connectivity and security challenges through partnerships or with the help of specialized service providers. Legacy devices continue to offer value throughout the patient journey. And they’re likely to remain in place in the medium term since their development cycles and use times are way longer than those of consumer products. By partnering with tech companies or service providers to develop bridging solutions for these legacy devices, MedTech companies could make rapid progress now.
Remember those cassette tape adapters we used in our cars’ audio systems to connect MP3 players? Or the Bluetooth dongles we use today to connect our older devices? MedTech companies could use bridging solutions to perform a similar function, gaining access to legacy device data, with the right security protocols to protect patients and their sensitive data. Ultimately, new devices with connectivity and cyber security ‘by design’ will arise. But in the meantime, we need intermediate solutions to make legacy devices as smart and connected as possible.
MedTech companies can also overcome the challenge of their engineering-driven culture by working with external service providers like design agencies. Collaborations that provide an outside-in perspective and wholeheartedly care about the end user could give them a more human-centered view of the problems medical devices can solve. And using design-thinking and design-doing could boost innovation and competitiveness in the market.
An external perspective can also be useful for developing new digital business models. Digital solutions are often engineering-driven too, with success measured by traditional product KPIs. In my experience, this can kill digital innovations in the early ideation stages. Collaborating with a company used to bringing digital solutions to market can ensure success.
Six key steps toward secure connectivity solutions
Adding connectivity to medical devices can have huge ramifications for patient safety and the security of their data. It can also affect the reputation of medical device companies and healthcare providers. For this reason, MedTech companies should pay careful attention to cyber security. However, trying to figure out secure connectivity yourself without experience or the right set of experts on board is risky, expensive and frustrating. Here’s what I recommend:
- Don’t start with designing the device—start with the needs of end users and the workflow around them. Specialized design agencies can help if you are lacking the experience.
- If you are not skilled at connectivity solutions, bring in external expertise to find intermediate solutions for legacy devices. Ultimately, this will enable you to create solutions with native connectivity and security by design.
- If you don’t have an up-and-running cybersecurity department, bring external expertise on board.
- Include those security experts in the design and development of every connected solution.
- Evaluate connected solutions regularly. Regular penetration tests will let you stress-test security and identify potential weaknesses to improve. This will make the device and digital solution more secure with each iteration
- Consider building your own cybersecurity capability. If you have started with the help of service providers, get them involved in building your own capabilities. They can gradually withdraw when you have the appropriate expertise in place.
Connected medical devices promise to transform healthcare. But remember that what’s needed is not just a connected device but an overarching strategy. MedTech companies that can overcome these challenges could create groundbreaking connected solutions. And change peoples’ lives.
If you’d like to discuss how connected solutions could fit into your strategic roadmap, please feel free to reach out to me directly.