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Heath Care Automation Could Save Premature Babies, But the FDA Is in the Way: New at Reason

In an age of self-driving cars and 400-ton airplanes that can land themselves in blinding fog, it makes no sense that hospitalized patients are surrounded by lifesaving machinery that can be activated only by a person pressing a button or turning a knob, writes Columbia University neonatologist Tom Hooven.

My patients with pulmonary hypertension are often attached to a respirator with adjustable oxygen settings. The respirator sits inches below the monitor that indicates how much oxygen is in the blood. But the two machines can’t communicate with each other. If they could, it would be possible to increase the flow of oxygen automatically the moment a crisis is detected.

In 2009, engineers developed just this kind of closed-loop respirator and introduced it in several hospitals as part of a feasibility study. It increased the time premature babies spent at a safe oxygen level by more than two hours per day. But no biotechnology company has marketed the idea.

There are other examples of automated systems with unrealized potential to save lives, and not just in the neonatal ICU. Software that scans an ECG for subtle heartbeat variability can identify patterns – undetectable to the human eye – that indicate an elevated risk of heart attack. Hospital beds that play audible feedback during an emergency promote more effective CPR. Yet patients are not benefiting because neither of these tools has been commercialized.

Why haven’t these innovations attracted the industry backing necessary to make them widely available?

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