Smart Devices: Science Fiction or Reality

I've always been baffled at the level of integration found between medical devices and healthcare information systems when concerning the way humans interact with the two. Exceptional integration exists to connect medical devices to healthcare information systems, especially in the critical care arena. Likewise, equally exceptional analysis tools exist to analyze data collected into systems. However, the very existence of these solutions seems to only the scrape the surface. I tend to believe many would agree that further integration is paramount, and even expected on a much larger scale. 

In practice the execution of such integration often leaves much to be desired when 21st century technology is considered. Interfaces between devices and systems are typically designed only to take value X from system A and place it in field Y of system B. Beyond that, little else occurs from an integration perspective unless expressly required for the solution to complete a specific clinical task. What could be done to further integrate a solution?

Take for example the recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Jennifer Connelly and Keanu Reeves. A scene early in the film showcases what is now considered a novel technology: Microsoft Surface. In the film, a scientist places specimens collected from the alien subject on a surface computer that resembles a table top with an LCD TV screen laid out and includes all the touchscreen capabilities of the Apple iPhone. The system detects the type of specimen, presumably by some sort of identification such as RFID. It displays information about the specimen alongside of it, again, presumably data that had been collected into a database. The scientist then goes on to bring up files associated with the specimen, enlarges them, then literally pushes them across the table for others to view, as if they were on physical paper.

Is this all science fiction? Or are we now on the brink of achieving such "smart" devices? Take a simple scenario concerning a less alien situation: a vial containing a blood sample from a patient in the emergency department.

As it is today, the phlebotomist fills the vial, ships it back to the lab via a hydraulic tube system, the specimen is analyzed by medical devices, the data is transfered to a hospital system, and the data is finally then transported back to the physician who ordered the test.

Now imagine a world where the phlebotomist draws the blood into a smart tube and hands the physician the vial. She needs only to place the tube onto a counter top to analyze the patient's blood and the data is automatically displayed for her and transferred to the hand-held devices in her pocket.

Human-centric device designs like Surface and the iPhone coupled with conceptually probable designs of 21st century nano technologies such as the memristor and microfluidic devices could make this all possible today. Still, the question remains: where is the desire for such technology?

Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Such is all too often the case with today's healthcare technology systems. The fact is we simply do not have information systems designed to take advantage of these modern technologies. Not yet at least.