Monday, October 24, 2016
Publication Date: 06/1/2007
Archive >  June 2007 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

Medical Miracles Through Electronics
Walter Salm, Editor .
Today's medical technology relies increasingly on electronics hardware at just about every level. Go to see a doctor and the first thing you see is a sign asking you to turn off your cell phone. Next, you get weighed on a digital scale, and your temperature and blood pressure are taken digitally. As the nurse works up your profile on a specialized laptop computer with a touch screen, you may wonder just how much of your life is contained in that hard disk drive.

Then the doctor comes in, and he has a similar laptop computer, making touch-screen entries as he interviews you. Then finally he (or she) will tap the screen to place an order for prescription meds at your favorite drug store. Back out front, you will tell the receptionist that you need a follow-up appointment in a month, and of course she uses a computer to schedule it.

This whole scenario is so far afield from the medical technology, or lack thereof when I was a youngster (a few thousand years ago), that I never cease to be amazed. Back then, we always used the same family doctor — the same one who had delivered me at a very old, outmoded hospital. He had his practice on the ground floor of his house, an old Victorian with a front porch and wooden steps that sagged a little. His waiting room was what had at one time been the house's parlor, and he wrote prescriptions with a (gasp!) fountain pen. Sadly, Dr. Smith and his very ancient medical wisdom went the way of the old trolley cars and horse-drawn dairy and bakery wagons that had been so much a part of my early childhood. The hospital is gone, too, replaced in another part of town by a more up-to-date, sprawling facility that brings back no childhood memories at all. As I write this, I am sitting in a visitor's chair, watching my wife (also U.S. Tech's associate editor) sleep in her hospital bed. She has tubes and wires coming out of her, feeding her body with needed meds and nutrients and monitoring her oxygen intake. What's even more amazing is that I am able to sit in her hospital room and work at my job on a notebook computer. We are 3,000 miles away from the towns where we each grew up.

Our Product Preview this month focuses on the Atlantic Design and MDM Show in New York. While I hadn't planned to be there, I will be in spirit, as I look around at this incredibly wonderful hospital at Stanford University and see the miracles they perform here on a daily basis. Their genetic testing facility determined that my wife had a "bad" gene that causes a particular type of stomach cancer. The gene had been first identified as recently as 1998. Some aggressive diagnostics at Stanford came up with a well hidden signet ring carcinoma. Being the trooper that she is, my wife was plugging away on this issue of U.S. Tech right up to the day before we had to make the drive down to Palo Alto for her surgery. Now, things have quieted down as I work on the last few pieces of the monthly jigsaw puzzle that ends up as a publication on your desk. Every so often, a nursing assistant will wheel into the room with an imposing looking cart topped by a computer and various diagnostic tools to measure vital signs — all performed very quickly, and all electronically.

One of the most important aspects of today's medical culture is the pedigree of the electronics that are used. They are almost entirely made in U.S.A., which speaks well of the state-of-the-art in domestic manufacturing. In fact, the vast majority of U.S.-made electronics today goes to the medical profession and the military — two market segments that are unwilling to go overseas for product. And for good reason.

Life-saving and tactical products have to be ultra-reliable and must have verifiable pedigrees, a paper trail (usually paperless these days) that certifies each component and manufacturing process. U.S.-made means that the products may still contain lead solder, because good old PbSn still provides the highest verifiable reliability. And product can usually be obtained off the shelf or with minimal turnaround time at most of our domestic contract manufacturing facilities.

Today, I am especially grateful for all of this wondrous technology, and the medical miracles that it helps to perform on a daily basis. From my wife's very costly PET (positron emission tomography) scan to the nursing assistant with her computer cart, it all comes together to keep our loved ones alive and safe. But yes, I still do kind of miss the old trolley cars and especially that horse-drawn bakery wagon. 

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