Software can breathe new life into medical devices

19 Feb 2013

Frank Keane, general manager, Vitalograph, with monitors and screeners

Ennis, Co Clare-based Vitalograph specialises in cardio-respiratory technology, and provides equipment and clinical trials services to global pharmaceutical industries. Claire O’Connell found out more from general manager Frank Keane about how the 50-year-old company is innovating in the field and why he thinks med-tech software is a long-term winner for jobs.

If there’s one perception about med tech that Keane would like to challenge, it’s that the sector is all about producing devices. And as general manager of Vitalograph he knows plenty about the design and manufacture of respiratory devices – the company offers a range of equipment to measure and monitor how patients’ lungs are functioning and how they are taking their medications.

Keane shares a telling statistic: the family-owned company, which this year celebrates 50 years in business, still sells close to 1m mechanical ‘peak flow’ meters annually. This is where a patient blows into the basic device to get a measure of how well their lungs are working.

Clinical trials support

However, in the past decade Vitalograph, which employs around 85 people in Ennis and around 200 people worldwide, has seen another side of its business mushroom.

It now works with major pharmaceutical companies around the globe on their clinical trials, providing not only the devices but also bespoke software and data management services.

That element of the business started when a pharmaceutical company approached Vitalograph around 10 years ago about getting involved with a clinical trial, recalls Keane, though it wasn’t plain sailing at the start.

“It didn’t go that well for either of us – they had never done it before and we had never done it before and what we were trying to do was very novel,” he says. “But we all learned a lot, we moved on from there, and we have done more trials with that company since. And we are now working with seven of the top 10 pharma companies on clinical trials.”

Training and monitoring the inhalers

Meanwhile, Vitalograph is also developing and producing new respiratory devices and software to support patients who are living with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

One of the major problems is that patients are not using inhalers correctly, explains Keane, and Vitalograph has developed and manufactures simulator devices to provide training for patients to learn the appropriate breathing techniques that deliver medication to their airways.

The company has also licensed technology from Trinity College Dublin and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland to monitor how a patient is using his or her inhaler over time. The device, which is currently undergoing regulatory assessment, clips onto the inhaler and tracks several parameters. Software then analyses the data so the patient and the doctor, nurse or pharmacist can see whether the inhaler is being used appropriately.

“The data can be viewed over the web to see if the person is using the inhaler at the right times and with the right technique,” says Keane.

Other Vitalograph products help patients to monitor their lung function at home – and in some cases the information is sent to servers so clinical specialists can keep an eye on their progress or flag brewing problems.

Connecting the dots between medical devices, care, software and talent

The company’s software-linked devices fall under the banner of connected health, and the approach makes sense, according to Keane, but in general he sees the need for greater clinical engagement and innovation in the area.  

“The technology exists, nothing new really needs to be invented for connected health – now it’s about deployment,” he says. “What needs to change is the care package, how you treat people.”

He also believes Ireland could reap more opportunities in the area of medical technology if it nurtured more of the specific talents that are in demand, particularly around software.

“When people think of the medical-device sector they often think of mechanical products, like stents, but software is also a medical device. And at the moment there’s a worldwide shortage of software engineers. So I think it’s absolutely essential that education gets the investment over the coming years, from primary school up to university, because companies will be attracted to where the talent is.”

Vitalograph is currently looking to hire software engineers, and Keane sees a healthy long-term potential for those skills in the med-tech sector.

“It’s an area that really needs a lot more exploration in Ireland because the jobs are there,” he adds. is hosting Med Tech Focus, an initiative which over coming months will cover news, reports, interviews and videos, documenting Ireland’s leading role in one of the hottest sectors in technology.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication