Archive for June 19th, 2012


Waiting for a technology Miracle

Post from Jean Thilmany:

Today, medical technology can be seen as a panacea for everything. But sometimes the speedy pace of medical breakthrough can give a false impression, which is painful to those waiting for the promised technology.

As someone who was continually promised better living through technology, but who waited years to see that happen, I strongly empathized with news out last week from two universities in the Netherlands that the development of body-powered prosthetic hands has stagnated for over 20 years.

The study that spurred the news account offers a possible explanation for why over half of all people with a body-powered prosthetic hand do not use it or even wear it, researchers said in a statement. Today’s prosthetic hands perform equally or less well than those from 1987.

Body-powered prostheses don’t rely on an outside power source and are operated via a system of cables, harnesses, and sometimes, manual control. Other types of prostheses are powered by electricity.

We’ll expand on that study in an upcoming issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine. One takeaway is that the researchers at the Delft University of Technology and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that there is hardly any investment in body-powered prostheses and that cost may be one factor.

The retail price of an electric prosthesis is around 10 to 100 time higher than a body-powered prosthesis. This makes it more attractive commercially to invest in electric prostheses, according to the study.

Cost was a factor in my own wait as well. In my case, less than 1 percent of people globally are as severely myopic as myself. Laser surgery isn’t an option for us, as it would necessitate shaving off too much of the cornea to achieve the proper vision correction.

“Just wait,” the doctors said, as early as the 1980s. “Something will be available soon.”

But it wasn’t until around 10 years ago before the proper medical technology came down the pike. And then another few years before I felt surgeons had enough experience with it under their belts that I could take the plunge.

Seems weird to bellyache about myopia, but it did impact my quality of life. I wore glasses that had to be adjusted to within a millimeter for me to see properly. Without proper adjustment I’d get a seasick feeling that frequently sent me to bed.

When my glasses were moved off center, as happened all the time, say when my child pulled on them or I bumped my head into a swinging cabinet door, I had to go to the only optician in town who knew what I was talking about and knew how to adjust them with exactness. And I had to ask for him personally and leave if he wasn’t in.

Around 10 years ago, something did come up: phakic interocular lenses. Phakic IOLs are contact lenses inserted in front of or behind the iris.

Though the problem to correct severe myopic hasn’t been much worked on (see the less than 1 percent statistic), PIOLs are close enough to cataract surgery (in that case the clouded lens is removed before an artificial version is inserted) that it wasn’t hard to make the technology available.

I finally worked up the courage to have it done and yes it’s been a miracle. I can swim, for example. (I couldn’t before because I couldn’t see the pool or lake without my glasses and the big, colored blur was too dangerous to dive into).

I’m not trying to say I had a severe or life threatening medical condition. But even my little taste of waiting for technology makes me realize how market forces drive technology innovations.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

June 2012

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