When you hear the names Intel, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, healthcare isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, but that could change.
The big chip makers are investing heavily in the sector right now, hoping to turn their knowledge of wireless devices into cutting-edge medical equipment. Already, some of these products are helping patients to lead healthier lives.
For example, a retinal implant in clinical trials uses TI chips to help stimulate nerve function and has helped patients with a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa to recover some of their lost vision.
"We see an opportunity to use technology, and specifically semiconductor technology, to transform health care,” said Doug Rasor, TI's vice president of strategic marketing. “Over a decade or more, we see no reason why we can't grow a billion-dollar business in medical devices.”
Already, sales of medical chips are growing twice as fast as the overall chip market. Meanwhile, the overall market for medical and personal health devices is expected to reach $34 billion by 2015, according to Forrester Research.
Among other projects, TI is working with scientific partners to develop chips that can be implanted in a person’s body to monitor internal health continuously.
"Why doesn't your blood-glucose monitor use, for instance, your cell phone to send the readings to the doctor?” Rasor asks. “The ability of that device to be smarter and deliver better quality care is an area where I think we can actually use technology to lower health care costs."
Another potential way to lower healthcare costs is to make it easier for doctors and insurance carriers to access a patient’s medical records.
Microsoft is among the technology companies working to make this happen. They have developed Helath Vault, an electronic medical records system.
“This is about bringing health into the Internet age and getting data liquidity to happen,” said Peter Neupert, the corporate vice president who runs Microsoft’s Health Solutions Group.
Although Microsoft is the one of the first out of the gate with this technology, there’s no guarantee it will be successful. There also are rival systems such as Dossia in the works.
“They (Microsoft) have to convince not the consumer, but the employer or the health insurance company that this is the right vehicle for this health care information," said Eric Brown of Forrester Research.