Designing Consumer Medical Products


To coincide with the Medica exhibition I wrote a White Paper called “Trust me – I’m not a Doctor” to explore some of the changes that I think are necessary for the development of usable consumer health devices.  One reader came back to me with a very pertinent question – “It’s one thing to say what needs to change, but what steps can manufacturers take in order to keep up with the latest developments in technology?”


It’s a very good question.  Much of the medical industry concentrates on gradual evolution.  It’s not an industry that is either particularly fast moving, or prone to disruptive influences.  Certainly Medica was very much about more of the same and not doing anything new.


That poses a real problem, and to address it I think you have to take a deliberatively disruptive approach by thinking outside the box.  Rather than asking how to keep abreast of technology, which is only likely to increase the pace of the current linear evolution, I’d suggest the more heretical view of thinking about what happens to the market when the clinician is excluded from it. 


That’s probably the most efficient way to promote change.  Today most consumer medical devices are just simplified or repackaged versions of clinical devices.  They still assume a medic somewhere in the loop.   If the potential of internet connected devices is going to happen, then we’re looking at the development of compelling applications that engage consumers.   And to be compelling they need to look at design from the user’s viewpoint.


This isn’t going to be a market for critical conditions – they will stay essentially within the same regime as exists at the moment.  But that’s actually a miniscule portion of the potential market.  Where consumer medical devices will appear is in everyday wellness, long term disease and assisted living.  Over half of the population is a potential subject, as this definition covers everything from weight, whether that’s obesity / diabetes or anorexia, through to arthritis, early onset dementia and simple fall alarms.  If product designers are innovative it can even extend to include reinforcement devices to help complement depression and addiction eTherapy schemes.  So as well as classic medical parameter monitoring it can include devices as commonplace as internet connected virtual cigarettes.


The risk that the traditional medical manufacturers face is that they’re still hung up on producing expensive devices designed for clinicians.  The mentality that Monty Python highlighted in “The Meaning of Life” as “the machine that goes ping” is still remarkably well entrenched.  As Sharon Brownlee describes so well in her book “Overtreated”, the industry still persists in designing their products to make money for physicians, rather than in reducing the cost of healthcare to the patient. 


I believe that we’re at the cusp where the market will change.  It may be because manufacturers, either traditional or new, realise that there is another way of doing things.  It may also happen because user communities discover the opportunities offered by connected devices and write the applications themselves. After all, there are plenty of web developers who are reaching an age where they have a vested interest in such services.  Or it may come from innovative companies that see the opportunity and seize it.


It’s the right time for such disruption.  Escalating health costs, plus the restrictions that a recession will impose will squeeze both social and personal budgets.  In the same way that industries were upset with the introduction of products like portable TVs, plastic kettles, walkmen or mobile phones, consumer medical devices are poised to do the same.  Existing medical device manufacturers are like dinosaurs.  They have the opportunity to stamp on all of the new furry creatures appearing below their feet, but unless they evolve rapidly, they face the prospect that smaller, faster companies will get there first and take these new markets away.


So to return to the question, medical designers need to take the initiative.  By doing so they may upset their existing medical customers, who may well see these new products as a potential threat to their income.  But if they don’t, they will confine themselves to their current markets.  And if consumer based healthcare takes off, these will inevitably shrink from where they are today.