Last month, we had the chance to speak with our customer Christine Horton, VP of Global Marketing for Nonin Medical, a global medical monitoring solutions company that has been leading the way in pulse oximetry technology for the past 30 years. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Nonin has been on an overdrive to meet the surge in demand to design, build and ship personal hundreds of thousands of fingertip pulse oximeters to healthcare facilities and homes to help people better determine virus exposure before debilitating symptoms set in. These small, Bluetooth-based non-invasive oximetry devices can detect decreases in blood oxygen levels, which is one of the first signs that a person has been infected with COVID-19. Christine shares background on the company’s overall mission and insights behind how the valuable medical technology works.
Tell us about Nonin.
Nonin was founded in 1986 by Phil Isaacson, our current Executive Chairman and Chief Technology Officer, with three other engineers. Phil was the visionary and driving force behind the operation, and he continues to be dedicated to our innovation efforts. While Phil was not the inventor of pulse oximetry, he was the first person to envision using a person’s finger without wires as a way to determine oxygen levels. His foresight led Nonin to launch the world’s first fingertip pulse oximeter in 1995.
Creating a non-invasive oximeter device was the goal at the time, and non-invasive devices are still our focus today. The word “Nonin” is actually short for “non-invasive.” Today we are a global company headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, often referred to as “medical alley.” Minneapolis is a center of excellence for medical innovation and technology advances, so it’s an ideal location for us to evolve our medical innovations.
Our mission is to improve the quality of people’s lives throughout the world. We want our highly reliable, accurate, and high-quality devices to be empowered by individuals and healthcare providers to help them make better medical decisions.
Why was the product created?
We developed the technology for the same reason it is so critically important today – to help save lives by enabling pulse oximetry outside of the hospital. The pulse-ox measurement is an early indicator in detecting COVID-19, even before high temperature, of raising a red flag if a person’s oxygen saturation has fallen below healthy levels. Taking this measurement every morning can provide a good baseline while you’re healthy. If you start to see changes, you can address the condition, or potential condition, sooner. We seek to empower self-care in the home, which can allow for earlier detection and may improve the chance for a better outcome.
While Nonin had products before 1995, launching the small fingertip oximeter was a game-changer for healthcare and personal health. Even though we really didn’t talk much about personal health in 1995, there were pockets of people who were paying attention to their pulse-ox levels. Now it is more mainstream, and our current connected devices are evolving rapidly. It also goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has also put pulse oximeters in the spotlight as an easy to use but potentially life-saving tool.
When we talk about personal health, or population health, we talk about a connected product, which is our consumer pulse oximeter fingertip device. Our 3230 Bluetooth Low Energy oximeter allows information to be shared so that you, your physicians, or other people you want to enable can see it. Data can be sent and received from the comfort of your own home, which is such a convenience and helps to free up space in hospitals and healthcare centers. For many patients and family members, it provides tremendous peace of mind.
How does your oximeter device work?
We use a technology called PureSAT®, one of our largest differentiators for quality, accuracy, and reliability. There are a lot of things that can influence a fingertip reading, such as movement and low perfusion in the patient. PureSAT has advanced algorithms that filter out artifacts and interference to provide a true, accurate measurement using infrared light and photodetectors to measure the amount of light getting through the fingertip to calculate the oxygen saturation of a person’s blood.
Accurate readings take just seconds. If the green quality indicator light is on while applying the device to finger, the user knows an accurate and correct measurement is being taken. Our product is FDA-cleared, and this an important distinction to ensure the safety and efficacy of the product.
What are your future plans for the product?
We support the push and pivot to telemedicine. Healthcare is rapidly taking place outside the clinic and hospital settings. Healthcare is happening right where people are at the time they want care. We have a team focused on our connected devices, and we see the market growing rapidly and continuing at a strong and sustained growth rate. For Nonin, this means we’ve increased our capacity for production two-fold to keep up with COVID demand. For the long-term, innovation in the personal health sector is focusing increasingly on home self-care – essentially telemedicine – becoming more mainstream. The rise of telemedicine ensures the continued need for device connectivity to the cloud is crucial for all of our future products.
Why did you choose Silicon Labs?
We use Silicon Labs’ chipsets for the majority of our Bluetooth-enabled products. For the 3230 oximeter product, we use the Bluegiga Legacy Model Bluetooth Low Energy Module. The Silicon Labs module enables us to get our products to market more quickly because they are easily integrated with a pre-certified Bluetooth radio that covers many geographical markets for us. The power-efficiency of the Silicon Labs module is also a very important feature for healthcare solutions like ours.
How has the pandemic changed the demand for your product?
In a word, yes. In fact, we have doubled production from March to June to try and keep up with the demand. We are still - like much of the medical essential and critical suppliers and medical devices - trying to make sure we keep up with the global needs of the healthcare systems. Fortunately, we were able to ramp additional production effectively and hired more staff in a very short amount of time.
From nearly the outset of the pandemic, it became clear that pulse oximeters could provide critical early insight to people before more serious COVID-19 symptoms presented. Patients will come into the ER, and maybe they don’t feel well, or they are a little short of breath, but they will be talking. One of the first signs of being in respiratory distress is having a hard time talking because you have to breathe well to hold a conversation. These patients will be breathing just fine, and two hours later, they will be on a ventilator. We’ve heard a lot of cases about the rapid progression of going from “hey, I can talk, and I kind of feel sick” to “my pulse-ox is now in the 80s or below.” This signifies something very dangerous for a patient. If a patient can see that their oxygen levels are decreasing before symptoms get to that life-threatening point, they may be more likely to get the care they need early on and avoid a potentially life-threatening onset of symptoms.
Right now, we are constantly evaluating what changes are temporary, semi-permanent, and permanent within the healthcare industry. We are closely looking at a variety of indicators, such as medical device access, hospital partnerships, and supply chains every day. Day to day, minute by minute, the pandemic has been a learning lesson for the world.
In addition to ramping production, what other steps have you taken during this uncertain time in our world?
As a medical device organization, we are squarely focused on mitigating risk within our supply chain to ensure we can continue supplying as many devices as possible.
We are a for-profit company, but we made the decision early on during the pandemic that we would not increase pricing, despite the escalating demand for the product.
Where do you see medical IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
I’ve been in the medical device field for 28 years, and this is the biggest and most rapid shift I’ve ever seen. The transformation is definitely driven by connected devices, personal health, and telemedicine. We were already moving in that direction, but because of COVID-19, telemedicine is now a proven concept that millions of people have come to trust and rely on. We anticipate telemedicine to remain at the 90% growth rate we see today.
Connectivity in medical devices is no longer a nice to have, and it has rapidly become a requirement. The Internet of Medical Things will become the norm in healthcare because it delivers so much value for a patient’s continuum of care. Medical IoT devices enable doctors and other healthcare professionals to track and treat a patient throughout the entirety of their life.
The data derived from medical IoT is also extremely valuable for healthcare economics and health insurance payers. If you have a finite amount of money, how can you best use the funds to care for the maximum number of people in the highest quality way? For example, if a doctor knows that you are not in crisis and can see from your pulse-ox level that the medication or therapy administered at home is working, you do not need to come into the emergency room. This frees up healthcare workers to give people care who really do need it, which ultimately benefits everyone.