Professor Malberg, one of the focal topics at your Steinbeis Enterprise for Applied Medical Technology is medical sensors. What services do you offer your clients in this area?
We have three application areas in medical sensors and bio-signal processing. There are classic clinical applications such as pacemakers or monitoring in intensive care and sleep medicine. Then there are non-clinical applications like ambient assisted living (AAL) and occupational medicine. Finally, there are other non-clinical areas such as driver assistance systems and lifestyle applications. All areas are closely related to one another and gain a great deal of benefit from our expertise, which has a strong leaning toward medical fields such as the measurement and characterization of the autonomous nervous system. The human nervous system is a highly complex information system which is incredibly sensitive to physical and mental stress. It also reacts to the malfunctioning of individual organs and it can signal personal health risks. There are new kinds of sensors that even allow us to transfer the latest clinical know-how to non-clinical areas – it’s one of things that makes this area so fascinating for me.
You set up your Steinbeis Enterprise five years ago. What sort of influence have technological developments had on your work during this time?
Five years ago I’d never have imagined that you’d be able to measure the human heart beat with a webcam – and even do it quite accurately. We’re now able to measure the heart beat, perfusion, and respiration with optical instruments, at a comparatively low cost. Contactless cardiovascular measurement technology is opening up completely new application areas for us, especially outside of hospitals. What we are increasingly witnessing is the growing power of smartphones as a measurement device or as an analysis and communication unit of external devices, hand in hand with increasingly rapid computation and transfer rates in centralized and decentralized networks. And this trend is no where near its end. About once a year a new sensor gets integrated into smartphones. At the moment, it’s not yet enough to meet clinical requirements but it’s only a question of time. The same applies to other kinds of sensors and cameras.
The area of application for medical sensors is vast. They’re not just used in clinical areas but also for out-patients. They’re used in online monitoring, in in-vitro and in-vivo diagnostics, etc. What sorts of questions do your customers ask and which services are in particularly strong demand?
We are mainly asked about two things. The first one is: How can new algorithms be used to acquire information that is more relevant to medicine from routinely measured bio-signals? This is the classic area of medical technology where it’s all about optimizing existing measurement techniques using new algorithms with a particular focus on the cardiovascular system. The second question is: How can new medical sensors be integrated into comparatively unconventional measurement environments? The projects we work on are a major challenge because sometimes there’s very little previous knowledge to go on worldwide. It’s certainly quite easy to measure the heart optically in young patients with a healthy heart under laboratory conditions, but the question is how to do this with older patients or cardiology patients, and how well does this work in a sleep lab or in a moving car? This involves addressing a lot of highly challenging interdisciplinary details; although at the end of the day, it’s not about the measurement technology solving the problem, it’s actually about how to interpret the measured values. And this is where we primarily see our role, with processes for reducing artifacts or innovative ways to process biosignals to help with decision-making. There are some big challenges in this area and they can only be mastered through long-lasting collaboration. Questions like “How can you predict the process of falling asleep by the minute?” or “Is sudden cardiac death actually the sort of occurrence that can be predicted?” are not trivial and they can’t be solved quickly.
Innovative, intelligent materials and RFID sensor developments – just two of the most recent technology trends we’re seeing in medical sensors. Where do you believe most research will take place in the future and what will the key areas of application be?
Intelligent materials and RFID sensors are indeed highly interesting areas with every potential to gather better medical information in completely new application environments. But what I find more fascinating is contactless medical measurement technology. What’s the best way to gather high-quality medical information without coming into contact with the body? In western societies we have at major strategic disadvantage in this area. Medical technology, like the instruments you find in hospitals, generally has negative associations among the population – it reminds you of growing old, being ill, and awful medical procedures, so who wants that sort of stuff at home? A good example of this is measuring blood pressure. Taking measurements yourself at home has become quite established now. The equipment doesn’t cost much, but people still don’t like it because of the pressure of the sleeve on your arm and it’s a bit difficult to take measurements. I believe the challenge is to develop a completely new generation of medical instruments that aren’t actually seen as medical instruments and are well accepted, and to motivate people to look after themselves. eHealth and mHealth are only going to gain widespread acceptance if the systems make the people the key point of reference and motivate them and they even enjoy using them. Unfortunately, our thinking regarding conventional medical technology still has a lot of catching up to do. More and more emphasis will be placed on the direct point of contact between the patient and the sensor. I consider the big challenge for the future to be the developing and establishing of solutions for this, even in the market for “non-standard” patients.
Professor Dr.-Ing. habil. Hagen Malberg is director of the Steinbeis Research Center for Medical Technology. The center is closely involved in issues relating to biomedical technology, the development of medical instruments and sensors, and bio-signal processing.
Professor Dr.-Ing. habil. Hagen Malberg
Steinbeis Research Center Applied Medical Technology (Dresden)