Health Tech News This Week – October 15, 2022

What happened in health care technology this week, and why it’s important.

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Novel Devices to Help Surgeons Sculpt a New Ear

At Johns Hopkins, clinical researchers have developed a set of surgical tools that allow them to more easily create a replacement ear for those born with malformed or missing ears. Conn Hastings reports on the research in his article in MedGadget. One device lets the surgeon quickly and accurately slice the harvested cartilage into the required thickness, helping a little cartilage to go much further. Then, a “cookie cutter” style system automatically slices the cartilage sheets into smaller pieces that can be easily fitted together to form a natural ear shape.

Image Credit: Johns Hopkins

“This makes our system highly reproducible, user friendly, time efficient and cost effective.”

Angelo Leto Barone, Johns Hopkins

Why it’s important – Some children are born without an ear, which is called anotia, or with a malformation of the ear, which is called microtia. At present, the standard way in which these conditions are treated involves harvesting cartilage from the ribs of the patient and then sculpting it freehand into an approximate ear shape before surgical implantation. Best of all, it consistently yields a natural-looking ear that helps children avoid being teased or bullied and enables adults to do things others take for granted, like wearing glasses.

Infographic of the weekGist Healthcare, using commercial claims data from Fair Health, shares the graphic below, which reveals that roughly one in twenty commercial medical claims are now for virtual care, a rate that has held relatively steady since dropping from its early pandemic peak. (These use rates likely extend to Medicare, as a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis showed that the virtual share of outpatient visits barely differed between those younger and older than 65.) What could be considered a true revolution is virtual care’s impact on behavioral healthcare, which makes up nearly two-thirds of the overall virtual care volume? According to Zocdoc, an online marketplace booking both in-person and virtual care services, 85 percent of psychiatric appointments booked in the first half of 2022 were for virtual care, dwarfing the virtual visit levels of the other top specialties.

Image Credit: Gist Healthcare

Walmart launches healthcare research institute

Molly Gamble in Becker’s Hospital Review covers the launch of the Walmart Healthcare Research Institute on Oct. 11. It will initially focus on inclusion in clinical studies on treatments for chronic conditions and treatments that should include members from underrepresented populations, including older adults, rural residents, women, and minority populations. Walmart is working with clinical research organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and academic medical centers. Walmart’s only partners in its news release are CTI Clinical Trial & Consulting Services and Laina Enterprises.

Why it’s important – Patient recruitment is difficult in clinical trials. Studies can be delayed or terminated when organizations cannot get enough people to participate, or patients drop out of the trial. Senior citizens, rural populations, women, and people of color in the U.S. are often left out of clinical research because they lack awareness of trials and access to facilities. If the Institute can meet the stated goals, Walmart’s new Healthcare Research Institute gives customers the chance to enroll in healthcare research, aims to improve diversity in clinical trials, and supports interventions and medications for underrepresented communities.

The smartphone will see you now! ‘Electronic stethoscope’ app can monitor your heartbeat by placing your device’s microphone to your chest

An electronic stethoscope on a smartphone could pave the way for doctors to monitor patients’ hearts remotely. Victoria Allen writing in The Daily Mail, reports on an app developed by a team including King’s College London that records not only the basic ‘lub-dub’ of a beating heart but the sounds in between of its valves opening and closing. Its primary use in the future could be to reveal if someone has a heart murmur, which causes an abnormal ‘swishing’ sound between heartbeats, and indicates someone has a heart valve condition. It could also provide extra information to detect atrial fibrillation, which affects more than a million people in the UK.

Why it’s important – The research was published in the European Heart Journal Digital health. Further research is needed to test how the app can be used in tandem with existing heart monitoring techniques. However, if successful, this development could mark an important step towards having heart monitoring tools at your fingertips.

Utah Bionic Leg: The most advanced AI-powered prosthetics ‘ever created’

University of Utah researchers have developed the most advanced AI-powered prosthetics “ever created,” prompting Ottobock, the world’s largest prosthetic manufacturer, to collaborate to launch the project globally. Interesting Engineering’s Baba Tamim covers the story. The Utah Bionic Leg combines motors, processors, and cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI), giving amputees the strength and mobility to perform actions that the average person might take for granted. To determine the leg’s position in space, custom-designed force and torque sensors, as well as accelerometers and gyroscopes, are used. According to the university, these sensors are linked to a computer processor, which translates sensor inputs into movements of the prosthetic joints.

Why it’s important – Amputees rely on their intact legs and upper body to compensate for the lack of support provided by their prescribed prosthesis. With the Utah Bionic Leg, this is less of a problem because the prosthesis’ increased power facilitates mobility. If you walk faster, it will walk faster for you and give you more energy. Or, it adapts automatically to the height of the steps in a staircase. Or, it can help you cross over obstacles. Users can effectively manipulate the prosthetic for extended periods of time, exactly like they would with an intact limb, thanks to the robotic knee, ankle, and toe joints.

This next-generation video game requires a prescription

On the frosty planet of Frigidus, a virtual world full of icy caverns and treacherous waterfalls, your mission is to race down a track and target the animals that come flying your way. This isn’t exactly easy: Bumping into walls — you navigate via your phone or tablet — can slow down your avatar, and there are other characters meant to distract you from your objective. Still, the idea is that through all these challenges, Frigidus’s frosty terrain can give you something other video games don’t: medical treatment. Rebecca Hailweil reports on this development in her article on Recode. Frigidius is just one part of the EndeavorRx universe, a video game designed to treat ADHD in children between the ages of 8 and 12. The game, which the Food and Drug Administration cleared in 2020, is designed to prompt the parts of the brain that we use to focus our attention. Now the company that created it, Akili, is hoping to expand its games for all sorts of other conditions, including depression and Covid brain fog. The goal is to create a new type of medicine, using technology to deliver a treatment that doesn’t require in-person supervision or risk causing any severe side effects.

Image Credit: Akili

Why it’s important – Games like EndeavorRx are appealing because they raise the possibility that an enjoyable activity could double as a potential therapy. This approach promises to make it much more affordable to deliver treatment and suggests that we can transform the phones, tablets, and computers we already own into medical devices simply by downloading an app. The challenge is that the impact of these games — which are still relatively new — is up for debate, even as companies like Akili go public and try to tackle more conditions. This means that, at present, these platforms run the risk of overpromising and under-delivering. EndeavorRx does have some scientific backing. After analyzing the results of five clinical trials with more than 600 children, the FDA found that the game could facilitate “general improvement in attention” and seemed to mitigate other ADHD symptoms, too. Though EndeavorRx isn’t designed to replace a pharmaceutical, it’s only available to people with a prescription. Patients with a prescription are sent an access code they can use to download the game. It’s pricy and may not be covered by all insurance carriers. That means it won’t be affordable for all and will likely limit the app’s adoption. But it will be interesting to watch how this market develops in the future.

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