Medical device manufacturers are scrambling to create new products that tap into the home healthcare trend. They’re focusing on areas such as fall prevention, bed sore prevention, patient health records and remote patient monitoring.

In the medical device industry, engineers are constantly searching for the next big thing. The first company to hit the street with a revolutionary new product stands a good chance of cornering the market.

For instance, consider Kinetic Concepts Inc. (KCI). The San Antonio, TX, company pioneered the field of negative pressure therapy 15 years ago. Today, KCI’s line of wound-care vacuums has made the company a leader in the growing field of at-home healthcare. The portable devices have been clinically proven to promote healing, while reducing the overall cost of treating patients with complex wounds.

According to BCC Research, the global home medical equipment market will grow from $18 billion in 2010 to $24 billion in 2015. Medical engineers are scrambling to create new products that tap into this trend. They’re focusing on areas such as fall prevention, bed sore prevention, patient health records and remote patient monitoring.

“As patients go home from the hospital earlier and earlier, they will need portable pumps, small-volume infusion devices and reliable catheters than can be used for long periods of time and aren’t prone to infection or contamination,” says Len Czuba, president of Czuba Enterprises Inc., a medical device design firm. “I also expect to see new products that address the widespread problem of bed sores.” Chair scales designed for individuals who are too frail or too obese to use conventional weighing scales, are another potential area of focus.

“Fall detection and prevention is another growing market for at-home medical devices,” says Valerie Steinmetz, program director at the Center for Technology and Aging. “Falls are the leading cause of injury deaths among older adults. Most of the focus has been on detection, but there’s a big opportunity to develop prevention devices.

“Medical adherence technology is another growing market for at-home devices,” Steinmetz points out. “Ninety percent of people aged 65 and older take at least one prescription medication; 40 percent take five or more medications. Unfortunately, about 23 percent of patients end up in nursing homes because they don’t take medications. Medication optimization refers to a wide variety of technologies designed to help manage medication information, dispensing, adherence and tracking.

“Consumer demand, coupled with the growth of in-home devices and self management of diseases, will also bring patients to use personal health records to monitor their condition and communicate with clinicians,” says Steinmetz. She also predicts there will be more development of remote patient monitoring devices.

For instance, engineers at the University of Sussex recently developed noncontact sensors for heart monitoring. The devices can detect a heartbeat up to a meter away. Traditional passive infrared sensors require movement to detect a person's presence and cannot easily differentiate between multiple people in a room.

“The electric potential sensors (EPS) are the first electrical sensors that can detect precisely the electrical activity of the heart without direct resistive contact with the body,” claims Robert Prance, professor of sensor technology in the School of Engineering and Design. “The new sensors will make monitoring a patient's heartbeat, whilst they relax in their . . . home, easier and less invasive than ever before.

“For the first time, we are able to detect electrical signals from the body passively, without making physical contact, and in familiar environments such as the home,” says Prance. “The sensitivity of these sensors means they can also be used to detect muscle signals and eye movements. [In the future, they] will be developed to detect brain and nerve-fiber signals.”

Prance and his colleagues are currently working with PassivSystems, an in-home smart technology company, to evaluate whether the sensors could be used to help elderly and frail people live independently in their homes by monitoring occupancy in a room and even whether someone's heartbeat has changed.