Engineering 101

Battery technology adapting for medical carts in hospitals


One of the most pertinent questions asked in twenty-first century healthcare is how effectively medical staff can tend to patients. This isn’t necessarily a question of the quality of the critical medical equipment, but rather the staff’s ability to manoeuvre it. Here, Michele Windsor, global marketing manager at medical battery specialist Accutronics, explains the growing importance of medical carts in hospitals and how battery technology is changing to accommodate it.

While we are often reminded of just how far medicine has come in the past century, it’s interesting to see how many age-old practices continue in the present day. The use of leeches, for example, was first used in ancient Egyptian medicine and was popular in European countries until as recently as the nineteenth century. But despite it being seen as a thing of the past, there are some modern practitioners advocating leech therapy.

There are less controversial medical practices that have persisted, such as a practitioner’s reliance on instruments and the means of transporting them. In the past, it was Native American shamans with medicine bags and doctors in Victorian Britain with physician’s bags packed with bone saws and leeches. Today, it is practitioners with medical carts holding critical equipment, computers and medication.

The value of medical carts

Medical carts are often overlooked when we think of important equipment in a hospital. However, they are necessary to ensure that high-value portable equipment, such as life support systems and anesthesia machines reach their destination swiftly and safely. Without carts to transport them, staff would be unable to promptly tend to many medical emergencies.

This is why the design of medical carts is essential in hospital environments with an increasingly disproportionate ratio of patients to practitioners. According to figures published by the UK NHS, there were a combined 392,323 NHS doctors and nurses in March 2017, while NHS Digital statistics recorded 19.7 million hospital admissions in 2016–17. This makes for a 50:1 ratio of patients to medical staff in the UK.

The situation is similar in the US. A study from the Physicians Advocacy Institute shows that there were more than 140,000 US physicians in 2015, with stats from the American Hospital Association putting admissions at 35 million in the same year. This gives a concerning 250:1 ratio of patient admissions to doctors.

With such ratios, it is understandable that medical staff cannot keep a constant eye on patients and must instead use electronic systems that alert them of any issues. But if there is an alert that a patient needs emergency treatment or surgery, staff must immediately be on the scene along with the required equipment.

Changing designs for changing times

It is such situations that are driving a trend for medical carts to be designed with both practicality and fast manoeuvrability in mind. As Marty Carlos, of medical device consulting firm Paragon Group, said, “designs [now] focus on innovative solutions to create smaller and lighter carts that are easy to manoeuvre”.

Carlos also believes that the role of medical carts is becoming increasing valuable in healthcare settings, saying that “the success of a device relies on the success of its medical cart. It just goes to show that medical carts are integral part of the medical industry and will continue to evolve”.

These trends have also been identified by Accutronics in its years serving the medical industry. Medical carts are responsible for transporting and powering increasingly life-critical equipment, which means better power supplies are required for a reliable performance.

However, medical carts have traditionally used Sealed Lead Acid (SLA) batteries as a power source. These batteries are heavy, require regular costly maintenance and perform poorly when working in regular discharge cycles. For medical cart designers to effectively embrace the trend for lightweight carts, the power supply itself must change.

It’s for this reason that Accutronics’ parent company, Ultralife Corporation, developed its range of Lithium iron Phosphate (LFP) lead acid replacement batteries. In particular, the recently launched URB12400-U1-SMB that includes Ultralife’s SMART CIRCUIT™ battery management electronics to provide the user with accurate runtime information, in addition to a balancing and protection system that maximizes both safety and performance and offers incredible performance.

LiFePO4 (LFP) batteries are up to three times lighter than SLAs of the same energy density which allows the overall cart to have better manoeuvrability and a more compact design.

Crucially, LFP batteries also overcome the traditional lifespan problems encountered with SLAs. For example, Ultralife’s batteries remain effective up to three times longer with less cell degradation over time, while still delivering a similar charging voltage to SLA solutions.

This move to SLA replacements is providing medical cart manufacturers greater flexibility as it allows design engineers to select batteries with smart functionality. These functions range from including a power management system that alerts users of remaining charge to circuits that protect the unit from over-charging and over-discharging.

Likewise, the end user is also able to use the cart more flexibly. Ultralife Corporation recently worked with a US medical cart manufacturer to develop its URS0010 power system for medical computer carts. This system includes a smart LFP battery and charger along with a holster.

It also allows practitioners to hot swap the batteries to ensure consistent power even when primary charge is low. Each battery powers the cart for between seven and nine hours, which means hot swapping can allow a lengthy run time when coupled with the smart charging system, which offers the quickest recharge currently on the market.

While a lot of medical technologies and treatments have changed completely over the course of healthcare history, certain aspects such as equipment transportation methods have developed and taken on new forms. The medical cart is a key part of that and is now an essential factor in the successful operation of a hospital.

By considering the development of new medical cart batteries, design engineers can ensure their medical carts successfully change with the times.

Source Accutronics

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