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New-look prosthetics and the changing world of health and medicine

Image credit: Omkaar Kotedia

Consumer choice is making itself felt in healthcare, from custom prosthetics to everyday exercise monitors.

One of the important trends at the CES 2020 consumer electronics showcase in Las Vegas was the proliferation of health and medical exhibits.

Traditionally this sector was supplied by specialist companies well-versed in what was required: plain, functional, unobtrusive design, certified fit for medical use, to be employed by health professionals or supplied to patients in the surgery, hospital ward or chemist. They were not cool. They weren’t meant to appeal to the patient.

That’s all changing. The sector is becoming ‘consumerised’. Visits to the doctor these days often start with the question “what do you think is wrong?” – to which I usually reply “I don’t know, I’m not a doctor, that’s why I’m here”, which occasionally raises a polite smile. But GPs now routinely ask the question because patients, it seems, look up their own symptoms on the internet before they go, convincing themselves they must have yellow fever or something else much worse than the flu the doctor will diagnose.

This ‘consumerisation’ trend, of people taking their health more into their own hands, is becoming evident in the new gadgetry too. At CES there were many such devices: endless variations of the fitness band theme, taking it much further with data reports for the doctor, for example. Not that health practices are really ready for that yet. There were also lots of gizmos to track your health and make recommendations for fitness or diet regimes. Can they improve public health? I’m sceptical: we’ve all known for decades what we should do (eat more fresh fruit and veg, more exercise etc etc); the problem is, we don’t do it. But these health monitors are selling well to a certain health-conscious consumer. So maybe it will at least make them even healthier. 

There were plenty of dental care gadgets too, employing robotics or artificial intelligence to the otherwise boring but straightforward task of brushing your teeth. Audio companies are discovering the hearing aids market. Only around 20 per cent of people who would benefit from a hearing aid actually have one. That’s partly due to the high cost when the associated consultation time is rolled in, but in the UK, where they’re free, it’s also low. The other major factor is how they look and the stigma that people fear goes with them. So hearing aid companies are designing their products to look more like ear pods, while ear-pod companies are redesigning their pods for the hard of hearing.

There was plenty of sleep technology on show too, including smart pyjamas and a smart bathmat that tracks body mass index (BMI) and posture. Overall, the CES digital health category was up 25 per cent with no signs of slowing. If it’s healthy, a technology company somewhere will digitise it and sell it to you. There were even interactive yoga mats and a meditation monitor on show. But the consumerisation goes beyond home health or the ‘Internet of Me’, as it’s becoming known.

Medical devices, once designed to be as inconspicuous as possible, are casting off their embarrassment and coming out in bold and brilliant designs. I’ve seen some beautifully designed wheelchairs and hospital beds at consumer shows and design awards. People want choice too, and that’s what this issue’s cover feature is all about. Why should a prosthetic look anything like a real limb if that’s not what the wearer wants? The only limitation, it seems, is the imagination.

Hilary Lamb receives BSME 2020 award

Congratulations to Hilary Lamb, our technology reporter, for winning the B2B Columnist of the Year category in the annual British Society of Magazine Editors Awards for her Dear Evil Engineer columns in E&T.

Image credit: BSME

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