Software-powered “smart heart” will go on and on

Over the past 12 months, the world has witnessed phenomenal breakthroughs (or near breakthroughs) in healthcare technology including:

  • The RIO Robotic Arm that can assist surgeons during a knee resurfacing procedure — a notoriously difficult operation to perform.

The Carmat “smart heart” can be added to this distinguished roster.

The artificial heart, which beats much like its biological counterpart, was devised by French firm Carmat SAS.

French heart surgeon Alain Carpentier, who spearheaded the venture described it as “more difficult than putting a man on the moon.”

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What so special about the Carmat artificial heart?

For one there’s the device’s adaptability. While other mechanical hearts on the market have a single speed and pressure, a truly unique feature of the Carmat heart is its use of embedded systems to adjust heart rate and pace based on the user’s movement.

Much of the technology that makes it all happen is from IBM Rational Software.

IBM executives say the smart heart project exemplifies how software can be seamlessly fused with other elements, including electrical and mechanical systems to enable some really complex functions.

The power of embedded systems was a key motif at the recently concluded IBM Rational Software Conference 2009 in Orlando.

IBM Rational executives at the conferernce shared several “case studies” to illustrate the impact of such “intelligent, instrumented and interconnected” systems on a variety of businesses, sectors, industries, and geographies.

The smart heart was cited as almost a textbook example of how embedded systems, in the area of healthcare technology, enable feats that would otherwise have been impossible.

Carpentier’s team developed the device with funding from EADS (European Aeronautic Defense and Space Agency), the parent company of passenger jet maker Airbus.

Through the partnership with EADS, the Cathart project could also tap into the Agency’s specialized expertise in computer modeling, stress testing, miniaturization, advanced materials, design for severe environments, hydraulics and turbulence.

However, apart from mechanical-electrical technologies, some of the smart heart’s unique capabilities are driven by software embedded in the device — created with IBM Rational software, according to Tom Hawk, general manager, global industrial sector at IBM.

“Besides regular pumping capabilities, the heart knows if you’re walking and running and makes automatic adjustments,” Hawk noted in an interview with

Information about the person’s current physical state is detected by tiny pressure and altitude sensors that were developed for use within airplanes. The information is fed to the device, which then instantly responds by either increasing or decreasing blood flow.

“The IBM Rational suite is a foundation for these capabilities,” Hawk said.

Conventional artificial hearts, such as the Jarvik heart, usually serve as a temporary fix for people awaiting transplants. And, unlike the Carmat heart, they cannot automatically adjust their pumping rate and pressure.

With heart disease claiming as many as 17 million lives each year worldwide, the Carmat smart heart could have huge implications for cardiac care. Doctors and healthcare providers would be able to remotely monitor and diagnose the patient’s heart, Hawk said. This would mean fewer hospital trips, faster product feedback, and lower healthcare costs.

X-rays delivered to iPhoness

Embedded software is also the cornerstone of Cedera WebAccess, a system from Merge Healthcare that enables medical images to be delivered to an iPhone or an iPod touch.

Toronto-based Merge Healthcare is a business-to-business provider of advanced imaging and connectivity software for healthcare. Its products help integrate imaging data and content into medical devices, surgical navigation systems, and electronic health records.

Typically, access to today’s medical imaging requires specialized systems or computers that can accommodate huge file downloads.

Cedera WebAccess – created with software from IBM – eliminates the need for such costly systems, IBM executives say.

So doctors, radiologists and other healthcare professionals would be able to more quickly access medical images, without having to download cumbersome files.  

This ability to deliver “x-rays and MRIs to laptops and iPhones would help doctors improve efficiency and give them more options when delivering patient care,” said Steve Mills, senior vice-president and head of IBM’s software group.

Merge executives say the firm’s competitive edge comes from its ability to respond quickly to breakthroughs in medical technology with new products that meet customer needs and comply with regulatory requirements.

To manage its development efforts, Merge has been using a couple of IBM’s software change and configuration products — Telelogic Synergy and Telelogic Change.

“We rely on [these products] to manage the complexity of the software we develop, and to ensure our global teams operate as one,” said Toni Wells, president of Merge’s OEM division.  

Within Merge, the most common use of the Change product is for tracking issues and other related data.

Synergy is used mainly by engineering – developers, testers and build managers – and has simplified and optimized the development process.

Collaborative innovation

However, this ability to design, develop and deploy differentiated products in a rapid, effective way — that Merge Healthcare has honed over the years — isn’t something many firms have.

And according to IBM’s Hawk, the main challenge to this is a human, rather than a technological one.

“Around seven years ago I ran IBM’s consulting and systems integration business. What I found was the case then, is still the case today: that the biggest impediment to implementing these “new wave” technologies is the cultural issue around the people.”

He said breaking down “stove-piped approaches” to designing and developing new products is a much bigger challenge than integrating technologies.

To respond to the people challenge, he said, IBM has adapted and expanded its sales model.

“Traditionally, we’ve used a ‘sell to’ model — which means we design and develop products, and then through our sales force try to effectively convince customers these products are worthy of consideration.”

The firm has expanded this approach with a sales strategy that it dubs the “collaboration innovation workshop” — essentially an exploratory process with the customer could take up to four to six weeks.

“During this period, we sit down with the customer and seek to understand what they’re trying to do with their product set. We bring our inventory of experiences, products, technologies and business process technologies to the table.”

Hawk said the process may culminate with the customer determining that they may be able to integrate IBM Rational offerings into their product set so as to avoid development costs, speed time to market and reduce risk.

Collaborative innovation, he said, has led to new and often unique “initiatives to build smarter systems – smarter energy grids, for instance, or smarter transportation systems.”

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