Thought Leadership

Software saves lives

By Colin Walls

I am very interested in medical electronics, as I have written about here previously. In particular, I am always keen to learn more about the role of software in facilitating the functionality of devices. I recently encountered a particularly interesting example of the impact that the software can have.

Just before Christmas, I went to a session to donate blood – specifically I donate platelets, which I have discussed before. I noticed that the display on the machine looked slightly different and asked about this. The nurse told me that it had had its “brain” refurbished …

What she meant, of course, was that the software had been upgraded. I have a very skeptical view of in-service software upgrades. Whilst the concept appears sensible, problems are very common. Windows updates seem to frequently cause interoperability problems; recent OS updates to my phone and iPad were both far from smooth. She went on to explain that the software now enabled the machine to extract blood from me at a faster rate. This meant that the same quantity of platelets could be extracted in less time; for me, that meant sitting still for only 60 minutes instead of the usual 80 or so.

I asked whether this was to enable them to process more donations. She said that, although that was a possibility, they were more interested in just getting more platelets from each session. It seems that most people can tolerate up to about 100 minutes attached to the machine. Previously, this meant that most donors could deliver 2 “units” of platelets. After the current trial period, this quantity may be increased to 3 units, without the donor having to sit still for a longer period.

I was very pleased to hear this. A small change to the software means that my donation could save 50% more lives and I do not need to do anything different. I like that. The work of an embedded software engineer is going to influence countless lives. How many of us can make such a claim? There is a way that you can do something:

I have not banged on about this for a while, but, as we are starting a new year, I urge you to consider a new, worthwhile venture: if you are able, please donate blood. People’s lives depend upon it. Thank you.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at