Implanted devices aren’t anything new. For decades, surgeons and physicians have utilized medical implant technology to enhance patient care. But in the past, these types of devices tended to provide therapeutics. Specific implants could improve some conditions while preventing others. Examples of this included pacemakers for cardiac arrythmias and cochlear implants to aid hearing difficulties. But this is rapidly changing as implanted devices are now increasingly focused on health monitoring. And this not only has repercussions for medical providers but for patients as well.
As medical implant technology has evolved, the potential applications for implanted devices have expanded. What began as wearable health monitors has now moved into a more invasive arena with microchips under the skin. As with all technologies, pros and cons may both be considered in terms of these developments. On the one hand, such technologies provide much better information that can lead to better care. But likewise, many fear that such devices could be misused in ways that undermine privacy rights. Regardless, it’s worth taking a look at some of these recent developments related to medical implants.
“We started to see this line blur with Fitbit. When you start looking into medical applications, there’s going to be a convergence, and I think that’s going to be inevitable.” – Amal Graafstra, Founder, Dangerous Things
The Latest in Medical Implant Technology
Several medical fields rely on implanted devices to provide better healthcare services to patients. Cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons place defibrillators and pacemakers to prevent fatal arrythmias. Neurologists prescribe implanted neurostimulators to reduce painful conditions. Even ophthalmologists use retinal implants to correct vision. But these types of implanted devices differ greatly from the latest medical implant technology. Newer devices are much smaller and boast greater connectivity to programs and mobile applications. And as a result, the potential uses for these newer technologies are much more expansive.
In recent years, these newer types of implanted devices have made quite the impact. For example, there now exists microchip implants that are being used to assist with prosthetic limb control. Extremely slim, digital implants exist within the prosthesis and improve its level of function. Other implantable technologies are even more intriguing. Smart tattoos with digital functions are now being utilized in patients with epilepsy. (Dive deeper into smart tattoo technology in this Bold story!) These special tattoos monitor brain wave function and then provide brain stimulations to thwart off seizures. As medical implant technology offerings have become smaller and more advanced, these are a few of the evolving uses.
More recent devices are more involved in monitoring than they are function. For example, accelerometer microchips can detect the severity of a tremor in Parkinson’s disease patients. This information can then be used to guide better medical care. Another company, Eversense, introduced a 90-day continuous glucose monitoring system as an implantable device. This medical implantable technology is FDA-approved and provides diabetic patients with haptic vibrations when glucose is too high or low. Likewise, it communicates via a mobile smartphone app that utilizes “tap” technology. And researchers at the University of Pisa are developing a lab-on-a-chip as one of its implantable devices. Not only can this microchip provide laboratory data without going to the lab. But it also is bioabsorbable, disappearing after it is no longer needed. These types of implanted devices are more about sensory monitoring. And it is this shift from function to monitoring that reflects the most notable developments in medical implant technology today.
“This technology exists and is used whether we like it or not. I am happy that it is brought into the public conversation. New technologies must be broadly debated and understood. Smart implants are a powerful health technology.” – Hannes Sjoblad, Managing Director, Dsruptive Subdermals
Implanted Devices Beyond Medicine
Without question, medical implant technology is rapidly advancing. This is creating new opportunities for providers to better manage patients. Likewise, it is also enabling patients to be more involved in their own wellbeing. But the use of these same technologies is being explored in non-therapeutic areas as well. For example, implanted devices that can be pre-programmed and scanned offer opportunities to store medical records and information. Rather than relying on electronic databases remotely, this type of health information could be accessible on each individual.
This is already happening as it relates to the pandemic. Dsruptive Subdermals is a company that recently introduced implanted devices that store COVID vaccine information. Their 2mm X 16mm implant serves as a vaccine passport for those who have been vaccinated. Rather than carrying vaccine card, the device exists on a person’s arm and can be readily scanned. Despite the convenience associated with this medical implant technology, many people have serious concerns about its use. Such implanted devices pose new cybersecurity threats where unauthorized access to private health information might occur. Given that some already distrust vaccines in general, these implanted devices increase their worries further.
“…[P]eople don’t want things in their body, but I will say that what I’ve learned with deep brain stimulation, even hip replacement, is that it’s something that is scary at first but, generally speaking, people do in my opinion adapt to it as they see the benefits of it.” – Hubert H. Lim, Implantable Device Researcher, University of Minnesota’s Department of Biomedical Engineering
A Brave New World of Implants
It now seems that technology is pushing boundaries when it comes to health and wellness. What began with wearable fitness devices has now moved into the medical implanted technology arena. From implanted devices that enhance function to those that provide real-time data, change looks to be inevitable. In fact, Elon Musk recently announced Neuralink expected to start examining implanted brain chips with human experiments this year. The use of implanted devices for vaccine passports and enhanced human functioning will take this to an even higher level. How the use of these implanted devices unfold over the next decade will certainly be something to monitor.