Over a century of electric medical devices

The continual evolution of healthcare technology

By Antoinette Price

The effects of electricity on the body were recorded as far back as ancient Greek and Roman times, when electric eels were used to treat joint pain, migraines and epilepsy. In the late 18th century, experiments by Italian scientists Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta using a metallic probe caused muscle contractions in a dead frog’s legs and eventually led to the invention of the electric battery. German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered the X-ray in the late 19th century, and since, countless EMDs (electric medical devices) have enabled significant advances in medicine.

Low-dose CT cardiac scan carried out on a six-month-old girl (© St Louis Children's Hospital Barnes-Jewish Hospital, US)
Low-dose CT cardiac scan carried out on a six-month-old girl (© St Louis Children's Hospital Barnes-Jewish Hospital, US)

Getting a clearer bigger picture

New developments in medical imaging technology have made major contributions to medicine, allowing doctors to get a much clearer internal picture of their patients, facilitating diagnosis, treatment and surgery. The five main groups comprise:

  • X-ray imaging, using a form of electromagnetic radiation.
  • CT using X-rays to produce images allowing three dimensional views of internal organs.
  • Ultrasound using high frequency sound waves to create images viewed on a screen of organs, vessels and tissue.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) which uses magnetic fields and radio waves to produce images of the body.
  • Nuclear imaging also for imaging by sections, using a penetrating wave.

In conjunction with other TCs (Technical Committees) that work on standardization for these technologies, the SCs (Subcommittees) and WGs (Working Groups) of IEC TC 62: Electrical equipment in medical practice, has carried out the bulk of the medical equipment standardization work required to produce the IEC 60601 family of Standards.

Seeing in 3D

Though still not fully exploited, 3D printing and printing electronics are being used for a wide range of applications. This technology can be life-changing, because it helps surgeons prepare for complex surgery. Some examples include the separation of twins joined at the head, the reconstruction of body parts after serious accidents, or in the case of rare diseases, life-saving surgery to replace body parts with a 3D-printed plastic version. Other innovative uses include customized dental parts, joint replacements and tailor-made hearing aids. IEC TC 119: Printed electronics, works on a number of International Standards, some of which are used for 3D printing.

Good things come in small packages

The manipulation of matter at atomic and molecular levels or nanotechnology is growing rapidly and has great potential in medical applications. One example is the development by engineers, of a custom-fitted implantable device with printed embedded sensors. The device fits on the heart like a glove and could eventually replace pacemakers. The International Standards for this particular application of nanotechnology are prepared by IEC TC 113.

Surgical robotics

Medical robots have taken the operating theatre by storm and seem set to revolutionize healthcare, especially surgery. This technology makes MIS (minimally invasive surgery) or laparoscopic surgery possible for gall bladder and prostrate removal, gastrointestinal and gynaecological surgery and urology. It also covers complex cardiothoracic, orthopaedic and general surgery and internal radiation therapy.

Gallery
Low-dose CT cardiac scan carried out on a six-month-old girl (© St Louis Children's Hospital Barnes-Jewish Hospital, US) Low-dose CT cardiac scan carried out on a six-month-old girl (© St Louis Children's Hospital Barnes-Jewish Hospital, US)
MEG (Magnetoencephalograph) scanner MEG (Magnetoencephalograph) scanner
Surgeons operating using a da Vinci Si Surgical System (Photo: ©2011 Intuitive Surgical, Inc.) Surgeons operating using a da Vinci Si Surgical System (Photo: ©2011 Intuitive Surgical, Inc.)