Seismic shifts in the industry are leading to reshuffled priorities for healthcare facilities, cutting-edge medical technologies, and growing responsibilities for HTM

Back in September, on the last day of the North Carolina Biomedical Association’s annual symposium, Corinne Hoisington, a professor of information systems technology at Central Virginia Community College, delivered a talk on “the latest and greatest” healthcare technologies and their implications for biomeds. Among the developments she reeled off her list: the Internet of Things, 3D holograms, ambulance drones, and a product from Microsoft the company calls Sway.

Sway, Hoisington explained, is a new “digital storytelling” app that allows anyone to easily create a Web-based presentation. The app might be used in all kinds of scenarios. But for biomeds, who spend much of their time helping clinicians learn how to use new medical devices, it could potentially revolutionize how they go about their work.

“It allows you to make training materials in a matter of seconds,” she says. Techs could log into their Sway accounts, and then just drag and drop documents, videos, and other materials to instantly create a comprehensive presentation on any device or technology they like. A nurse might then use an iPad or smartphone to watch a Sway training video that explains how to troubleshoot an infusion pump. Or a doctor who needs to learn the ins and outs of his AccuVein might do the same while he’s out on the golf course.

Hoisington says she demonstrated the program at her North Carolina presentation, and at another talk she gave in Virginia. “And you should have heard what people were saying,” she recalls. “It was the same from everyone: ‘This is it, we’re doing this, we’re making these.’ I really think if you’re talking about training, or about documentation, this is something that will change the game.”

A World of Potential

Sway, of course, is just one product from Microsoft, and it remains to be seen how biomeds might actually use it in real, live hospital environments. But that’s one of the points that Hoisington was trying to make in her presentation: That for biomedical professionals, the new tools of the trade are, in many cases, so new, and so full of potential, that it’s anyone’s guess what their impact may be. And the same can be said for healthcare products and technologies themselves.

“There are a lot of cool things happening in healthcare right now,” she notes. Some of these trends may prove to be fleeting, or perhaps the first steps toward something else, but others may ultimately transform the entire industry. As Hoisington puts it, “you never know.”

Which leads us to this round-up of the emerging technologies and major trends across multiple segments of the healthcare industry. We reached out to a number of experts in the med-tech arena for their big picture thoughts on how the industry is changing, and also to get a sense of what’s in store for HTM. These healthcare consultants, industry group leaders, and executives at major manufacturers each offered a unique perspective, but their insights into the biggest health-tech developments clustered around six distinct themes. So where are we headed in 2016? Here’s what we found:

1. Everything will become even more interconnected—one day.

We all know about interoperability and medical device integration. Well, according to Mary Logan, president of the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI), true interoperability is still a work in progress. “We haven’t mastered it yet,” she says, noting that cybersecurity is one big sticking point, especially for legacy devices that “were never designed to be able to connect to anything.” Still, she adds, “we are getting better at it, and I feel much more confident that we will master it eventually than I did last year or the year before.”

“Soon,” agrees Todd Reinke, senior director of customer services marketing for Philips, “everything is going to be networked,” which means there will be many opportunities for HTM professionals to get involved. Reinke ticks off areas of increasing focus in the hospital environment: “Integration, interoperability, network design, network administration, network monitoring….They all come with challenges, but they will all be services that [biomeds] can look forward to handling in the future.”

2. Manufacturers will increasingly design their products to be compatible with those from their competitors.

One of the ways interoperability may become a reality? According to Moshe Engelberg, founder of the San Diego-based healthcare and metech consulting firm ResearchWorks, medical technology companies “need to find the courage to strategically say to their customers, ‘buy from our competitors.’ ” They’re realizing, he explains, that health system executives, hospital clinicians, and biomeds alike want to have a say in their equipment purchases, and don’t want to be told they have to stick with one OEM. In some cases, he explains, a facility may prefer to buy “best of breed,” because doing so will enable staff to deliver the highest level of care; in other cases, an organization may lean toward device uniformity, because “good enough is good enough, and the uniformity might reduce medical errors, streamline workflow, and make everything easier to maintain.” Recognizing this distinction, an increasing number of equipment manufacturers are “tooling up” to enable compatibility with other brands while still maintaining certain competitive advantages, Engelberg says—which means device integration may become a lot easier.

3. Data analytics will become an increasingly important part of HTM’s job.

One of the biggest challenges associated with interoperability, Logan notes, is “figuring out what data really matters and how we can use it.” Her favorite example is alarm management: “Alarm signals tell us something important is happening, but when you have too many alarms it just becomes noise.” The key, she says, is in analyzing the data we get from alarms “to determine which signals matter,” and then creating parameters for alarmed devices “so that the data we get is the data we want and need.”

Agnes Berzsenyi, vice president and general manager of Global Services Product Management at GE, agrees with Logan that data analytics is proving crucial to healthcare. “We’ve figured out how to capture data,” she says, “and while that is critically important, even more important is using that data to optimize care delivery and drive better outcomes. If it’s not helping you do your job, which ultimately involves taking care of patients, it’s not useful.” To really extract value from so-called big data, she explains, “we have to make sure we can identify, analyze, and make it actionable in order to facilitate better and faster decision-making.”

So how can biomeds prepare for a world that revolves around data? It has to begin with education and training, Logan says. Project management skills, communication and leadership skills, and systems thinking were not necessarily on the curricula when most HTM professionals attended school. “But they are the skills that are going to make [biomeds] valuable in healthcare delivery moving forward,” Logan notes.

4. Care will become even more personalized.

The day is coming “when care will be personalized to the unique needs of the individual patient,” Logan says. Imagine, for instance, a 3D-printed tracheostomy tube perfectly sized to match the anatomy of a newborn baby. Or a patient with cancer who hasn’t seen progress following traditional radiation or chemotherapy receiving a customized treatment plan. “We might have the same disease, or the same two or three diseases,” she says, “but new technologies will allow us to attack them in different ways.”

New imaging technologies like augmented reality (AR), which Hoisington addressed in her North Carolina talk, may prove critical to this personalized approach. “You could do a CT scan on a patient and see the results in a hologram, which you could then slice and dice” to get a closer look at the relevant anatomy. For biomeds, Hoisington says, the challenges around AR—or, for that matter, any new technology—will be similar to those they have always faced: “It’s just another piece of hospital equipment that they will have to buy and set up and understand and maintain.”

5. Healthcare will increasingly move outside of hospitals.

Logan describes this as “healthcare anywhere and anytime, wherever the patient happens to be.” For obvious reasons, this shift is great news for those who need care. “But it’s going to be a big challenge for healthcare systems, and a big challenge for technology companies” as they tackle the logistics around healthcare delivery. Today, Logan says, the model for “home health,” as the industry calls it, is the same as it’s been for at least a hundred years: “You go home from the hospital, and if you need a cane, or you need a wheelchair, a rental company in your neighborhood will deliver it to you.”

Now, though, the medical devices that are leaving the hospital with patients are becoming increasingly complex. “Ventilators weren’t designed for patients to operate on their own,” she notes, “but patients are going home with ventilators.” The transition to care outside the hospital walls leaves biomeds in a difficult position: “This has huge implications for the HTM community. Who’s cleaning the equipment? Who’s maintaining it? Who’s repairing it when something goes wrong?”

There are similar concerns around the new technologies that will likely play a role in this home health movement. Engelberg singles out wearable devices, and the “connectivity issues, quality issues, and challenges around how to service” technologies that BMETs may not have any access to. “Will biomeds be responsible for monitoring and up-keeping devices in that space?” he asks. “I think that is still being figured out.”

Hoisington agrees, and points to one new technology—ambulance drones—as an example. A number of universities, Hoisington notes, are researching the use of drones to deliver medications, defibrillators, and other medical services and devices to patients in need in remote or difficult-to-reach areas. Such a drone might include audio capabilities to allow medical professionals back in the hospital to give verbal directions to the “patient” (or the caretaker who is helping them).

And HTM’s job? They may be responsible for maintaining the drones, or for programming them to fly only to certain heights, or for resupplying them when they return from a mission. “It’s too early to know at this point,” Hoisington says.

6. Healthcare facilities will become more strategic.

Healthcare reform—and, in particular, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s Triple Aim initiative (better care for individuals, better health for populations, and lower per capita costs)—has led hospitals to rethink the way they do business, which in turn has had implications for the HTM profession. That’s all old news.

What’s new, says Engelberg, is the speed at which changes related to the Affordable Care Act are happening now. “There’s a big push to use fewer vendors, and sometime engage middleware companies for cross-brand integration,” for instance, “which changes things for biomeds, because obviously that means there are fewer brands and fewer devices they need to get to know.”

On the other hand, he says, biomeds are increasingly being asked to “help frame the discussion around return on investment.” In some facilities this has meant more work around value analysis, on purchasing committees, and in meetings on metrics with leaders in the C-suite. Healthcare executives, Engelberg notes, “are recognizing the fact that maintaining and servicing devices is expensive, so they’re looking for ways to keep those costs down.”

Berzsenyi from GE agrees. Facilities, she notes, are increasingly doing everything they can to reduce costs, decrease asset utilization, and improve time management and employee efficiency. These priorities have made technologies like computerized maintenance management systems more important than ever.

At the same time, she says, equipment is becoming more and more complex, and its management is often shared by multiple departments. “Biomed and IT are now working together all the time,” Berzsenyi says. “And they’re facing a lot of questions: Who is taking care of this part of the system? Do clinicians know who to contact? Who is actually going to respond” to a service request?

The answers to these questions might be best laid out by the first biomeds to get their hands on Sway. An easy-to-read presentation on breaking down silos and interdepartmental professional collaboration? It may be coming soon to a hospital near you.

Chris Hayhurst is a contributing writer for 24×7. For more information, contact chief editor Jenny Lower at [email protected].

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