Pacemaking Software


If you've ever shopped for a computer, you've dealt with issues of compatibility: Can I run program A on machine B? Will disk X fit in drive Y?

Believe it or not, cardiac surgeons face far more complex compatibility problems every day--right in the operating room. There are scores of replacement pacemaker models, and just as many different connectors for attaching them to the wires already in patients that lead to the heart. One mismatch and . . .

The good news is that pacemaker manufacturers keep technical specialists sitting by the phone day and night just to advise surgeons, who often call during an operation. The bad news is that those specialists must track more than 1 million possible combinations of pacemaker and connector. Until recently, the specialists at Medtronic Inc., a Minneapolis pacemaker company, made do with paper files. But new software designed for them by SpectraLogic Inc., of Atlanta, uses innovative graphics to help identify the right combinations quickly and without error.

SpectraLogic's big challenge was to make it easy to navigate through a complex and continually growing data base. In 1990, a new industry standard called for every pacemaker and connector to be redesigned, effectively doubling the amount of data involved.

It was clear from the start, recalls P. Randolph Carter, director of industrial design at SpectraLogic, that only a graphical display would do.

Ultimately, after lots of "noogying around," Carter came up with a grid of intersecting rows and columns representing selected pacemakers and connectors. At each intersection appears a symbol appropriate to that combination--red bars indicate danger, for instance.

NEAT. The so-called Fit program runs on Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh, which has advanced graphics software. But Medtronic keeps the actual data on an IBM PC-compatible computer, which funnels it to a network of Macs.

Carter is proudest of the look and feel of the program. Its neat, concise appearance, he believes, inspires confidence in the answers it provides. His main innovation was turning the square matrix on its corner so that the labels for both rows and columns can appear horizontally and are thus easily read.

The lesson from this assignment, says Carter, is that while computers have amazing powers to manage data, their graphics are often confusing. He reckons that industrial designers "lost control of the interface between person and product" with the advent of microelectronics in the 1970s. But designers can rectify that if they work with programmers right from the start. "You can't come in two weeks from the end of the project," he says.

The Medtronic system he devised does more than help surgeons. While it's providing advice, the system also records information about what kinds of data are being requested. Later, that gives Medtronic's marketing department a better idea of product trends and what the competition is up to. Soon, Medtronic's field reps will carry a laptop version with them on sales calls.

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