Growth Prospect: Replacement Body Parts

Posted on May 8, 2010

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I know it is May, but Fast Company’s February issue had an interesting perspective on the next generation of prosthetics (“Super Human”).  Even though the most obvious cause for replacement body parts, war, only accounts for 0.1% of the 1.7 million American amputees, the article reports prosthetics is ready to explode as a market need.  From Luke Skywalker getting fitted for an artificial hand in Star Wars to the Terminator cyborg, robotic body parts have been a societal fascination, but never fully accepted.  The winds of change do blow.  This article offered three points relevant to the healthcare market today. 

First, the prosthetics / orthotics industry has had major technological developments that have increased the performance and desirability of their products.  The materials are not aluminum and plastic, but carbon fiber and titanium.  Some parts have embedded microprocessors that control hydraulics in the limb.  One amputee confided:  “I feel stronger” [than before his accident].  The new technologies can allegedly offer increased physical performance over human parts (leg – increased strength through wattage, foot – decreased contact time with ground), although this seems a philosophical debate considering our daily performance rarely relies on our scientifically-measured specs.

Second, the upgrade knows no bounds.  The article describes how past body part replacement was seen as failure from an orthopedic specialist’s perspective, where saving a damaged body part appeared to be a better alternative than amputation and replacement.  Now, not only is there no stigma in possessing a newfangled prosthetic, but amputees have been reported to routinely upgrade their parts with newer technology, or by removing more human body to incorporate into a re-designed artificial design—and as an out-of-pocket expense.

Third, and most powerfully, is aesthetic acceptance.  Consensus appears to be mechanical (non-human) body parts can be beautiful, in the same way that other man-made creations in our world, like bridges or art, can be beautiful.  They may never replace organic beauty, but why try to make an artificial limb look natural?  The pink, fleshy, stiff prosthetics of the past are shunned, while the new ones—sleek, machined, industrial design paragons—are even preferred to human limbs by some of the amputees. 

Architects have argued for centuries about whether one material should cover-up for another if it is not the real thing.  Nearly one hundred years ago Austrian architect Adolf Loos wrote an important essay entitled “Ornament and Crime”, which decried the practice of covering, adorning or attempting to make anything appear as it is not (e.g. tattoos).  He believed materials and surfaces should be true to their composition and called ornamentation unnecessary and “degenerate”.  Why the effort in the past to make a prosthesis appear human when it is not?

But I digress.  As reported by Fast Company, a diabetes diagnosis increases the risk of a lower extremity amputation by a factor of 28.  In addition to prosthetics, internal body part replacement and enhancement are growing as the Baby Boomer bulge ages:  think joints like hips and knees.  These are the numbers and trends healthcare providers know and we, as designers, must plan for.

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Posted in: Growth Prospect