Healthcare // Clinical Information Systems
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5/1/2012
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Implanted User Interface Gives Patients New Options

Placed just under the skin, implanted UIs could accept touch inputs, giving users with implanted medical equipment such as pacemakers more control over their device's operation.

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Pacemakers and other implanted medical devices have become commonplace. But being able to directly interact with implants--via user interfaces that are implanted as well--still might strike some as science fiction a la the Terminator.

Researchers who are testing implanted user interfaces say the appliances will enable people who have implanted medical devices such as pacemakers to recharge and reprogram them without the use of wireless transmissions, which are considered vulnerable to hacking.

"So far, people have only been able to get those implants checked by making a trip to a physician or by interacting with wireless technologies such as Bluetooth. But there hasn't been a lot of direct interaction with implanted devices, and indirect wireless communications have raised some security concerns," said Christian Holz of the University of Potsdam in Germany, in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare.

Holz and his colleagues from Autodesk Research in Toronto and the University of Toronto will present a paper on their findings at the upcoming Association of Computing Machinery conference in Austin, Texas. They shared the article with InformationWeek Healthcare ahead of its publication in the proceedings of that conference, which is devoted to human-computer interaction.

[ Is it time to re-engineer your clinical decision support system? See 10 Innovative Clinical Decision Support Programs. ]

Using a cadaver as their subject, the researchers showed that it's possible to communicate with a small UI device that is implanted just below the skin of the arm. Some of the output is sensory, such as vibrations or sounds that might alert a patient with a pacemaker that the device's battery is nearly discharged. They also tested pressure and light sensors for entering information. In addition, they successfully recharged batteries through a "powering mat" placed on top of the skin.

Despite the security issues, the researchers also tested Bluetooth transmissions that could prompt a smartphone or other wireless hub to send signals to a care manager or physician. They discovered that data transmission was hardly affected by the skin covering their UI device.

In contrast to current implanted medical devices, which can do only what they're programmed to do, those equipped with or attached to an implanted UI "could support a wide range of applications and tasks," the paper says. For example, if a pacemaker malfunctions, it could be reprogrammed.

"But that doesn't mean the person is entirely in control," said Holz. "A lot of these malfunctioning pacemakers can be adjusted by reprogramming them. But so far, there's no option for anyone but the physician to do that."

Implanted units have several advantages over mobile and wearable UI devices, the study says: the implanted units travel with the user, are invisible, and are impervious to the weather. So far, there has been no other research on this type of appliance, according to Holz, but he and his colleagues see a lot of potential for it because of the continuing miniaturization of the technologies involved.

Holz and his colleague Tovi Grossman of Autodesk, who also spoke with InformationWeek Health, admitted that much more research needs to be done before their vision becomes reality. Among other things, studies must assess the infection risks of implanted UI devices. Also, it's not clear exactly how people would interact with the devices implanted under their skins. Holz said the interface device could use barely audible sounds or vibrations to warn users of some problem with a medical device or its battery without making others aware of the alert. If a device used Bluetooth to make a smartphone ring, in contrast, "this would be very noticeable to everyone, plus it would require you to have the iPhone with you to see the message," he said.

The 2012 InformationWeek Healthcare IT Priorities Survey finds that grabbing federal incentive dollars and meeting pay-for-performance mandates are the top issues facing IT execs. Find out more in the new, all-digital Time To Deliver issue of InformationWeek Healthcare. (Free registration required.)

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