HMI innovation in medical device development is essential

Jennifer Samproni, Chief Technology Officer of Health Solutions at Flex discusses HMI innovation in the development of medical devices

In today’s world, the human experience is becoming inherently more connected. With consumer devices and applications managing tasks and experiences for users, it’s clear that our medical devices cannot lag behind. Beyond ensuring that innovative medical devices meet consumer expectations and align with their current reality, medical device manufacturers need to take a closer look at human machine interfaces (HMI) to transform the future of health and patient delivery. HMI, which gives humans the ability to operate as controllers for machines, plays an integral role as the medical technology industry transforms and delivers innovations that are smarter and more connected.

Jennifer Samproni, Chief Technology Officer of Health Solutions at Flex

Jennifer Samproni, Chief Technology Officer of Health Solutions at Flex

Managing the healthcare system’s rising demands

From the aftershocks of COVID-19 to a growing ageing population with chronic diseases on the rise, rising costs and ongoing staffing challenges, healthcare providers need to find new ways to effectively care for large and diverse patient populations, while also empowering individuals to manage their own care. Recent research studies project that between 170m and 230m Americans could be living with one or more chronic conditions by 2030, while the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that chronic diseases are currently the leading drivers of the nation’s US$4.1trn in annual health care costs.


The rise of connected health

Thankfully, the rise of connected health can address many of these issues. Whether we’re calculating daily steps on wearable fitness trackers, FaceTiming, or asking Alexa for a recipe, it’s easy to take for granted the ways in which technology shapes our habits and makes our lives easier. When it comes to our health, we also have come to rely on products like glucose monitoring systems, wearable vital sign monitors and sleep support devices.

These products share one commonality: their intuitive design and HMI makes them easy or even automatic to operate, which makes them “stickier” with end users. This must be a guiding principle when designing medical devices. They should make our lives easier, healthier, and more efficient without adding more steps or complexity. To support consumer demand and market trends, healthcare companies must ensure that at the design phase, HMI and the overall user experience is taken into consideration. By anticipating the opportunities and challenges of a more connected world and ensuring that devices slide seamlessly into the end user’s life, medical device manufacturers can gain a competitive edge while delivering an improved patient experience.


Designing for an ageing population

When designing smart devices, you don’t often think of an elderly population as the target audience. Older users tend to struggle with newer technologies, especially if the information is perceived as too technical, or complicated to follow. This makes effective HMI more crucial, because designing for the average customer — not just the most tech-savvy one — means that devices are more likely to be used correctly.  

There is a huge opportunity to improve care for the elderly through more intuitive medical devices with a simple, intuitive HMI. For example, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, 55% of the elderly are non-compliant with their prescription drug orders

Helping the elderly population to interface with medical equipment will help address care gaps, enable patient education and improve healthcare quality.


Tackling chronic illnesses head-on

The rise of chronic illnesses — and its associated financial toll — is something to be concerned about. The CDC defines chronic diseases as “conditions that last one year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both”. These can be attributed to both our ageing population and key risk behaviours such as tobacco use, poor nutrition, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use. Moreover, some people who had COVID-19 are experiencing long-term effects.

These patients need easier, faster and reliable access to quality care so that they can manage their ongoing health conditions and mitigate adverse outcomes.

Innovative medical devices can also vastly improve quality of life. Consider a soft robotic wearable that a team of researchers developed in order to assist upper arm and shoulder movement in people with ALS. Though the product is not yet available commercially, its intuitive HMI — which meant that study participants learned how to operate the device in less than 15 minutes — will allow it to integrate into a patient’s everyday life with ease.


How to alleviate staffing issues

Another challenge for the healthcare industry is ongoing staffing challenges. We saw COVID-19 disrupt more than just global supply chains. In many cases, the pandemic interrupted the important education and training for those embarking on a medical career. Many also reconsidered remaining in the medical field due to burnout from an extremely stressful work environment.

As the healthcare industry addresses ongoing staffing challenges, they will need to employ both short and long-term strategies. For healthcare systems, these strategies might include recruitment, training, and retention initiatives, while medical device manufacturers might look at how to improve product design to make devices error-proof so that they can be easily operated by a newer, less experienced or part-time workforce. Moreover, improving HMI for telemedicine solutions can alleviate the demands on the system, allowing patients in underserved or remote areas to access quality care even when there are staffing shortages.


Better healthcare is possible

The importance of HMI in medical device development cannot be overstated. As the world becomes more digital and connected, medical device manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that their products are innovative, efficient, and user-friendly. By focusing on the needs and experience of the full spectrum of end users and making HMI a priority in device design, we can improve patient care, enhance user experience and ultimately save lives.

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