There is hardly any adult in the developed world who has never been the subject of a blood draw. The easiest way to access medical information about a patient is through a blood test. There are 9 billion blood draws per year in the United States alone and blood tests inform over 70 percent of medical decisions.
However, many have serious fears about it. On the one hand, it might be pretty scary since it is carried out with a needle. On the other hand, sometimes it takes a lot of time and more than one attempts until the nurse or the phlebotomist finds the appropriate vein to carry out the procedure. Many factors make blood tests complicated.
Are blood-drawing robots the future?
Medical technology aims to offer a solution. An example is Veebot, a blood-drawing robot which allows for speeding up the unpleasant blood drawing experience. With Veebot, the whole process takes about a minute, and tests show that it can correctly identify the best vein with approximately 83% accuracy, which is about as good as an experienced human phlebotomist.
In spite of the encouraging test results, there are tremendous hindrances to its comfortable and unaided utilization. The robot needs quite a bit of help from a human phlebotomist both before and after the actual blood draw takes place. The robot cannot wipe the skin with alcohol, cannot take the cover off the needle, once the vein is accessed cannot actually remove the blood from the vein with a syringe, or apply pressure to the puncture site, cannot put a Band-Aid on the skin or cannot safely dispose of the needle. That is the reason why I believe there will be no widespread application of a blood-drawing robot in hospitals in the near future.
However, it is a widely shared opinion that the blood-drawing process should be revolutionized. Both sides, patients and medical professionals alike yearn for change.
Right now, nurses and phlebotomists are afraid of the process: they fear that they miss the vein and by doing so they cause unnecessary pain and have to repeat the puncture over and over again. Patients are also afraid of the process: they fear the needle, they fear the pain and there are some who even fear the sight of blood itself.
Are Vein Scanners the answer to all our problems with blood tests?
For nurses and phlebotomists, the main problem is that they do not possess X-ray eyes. Yes, yes, of course you should. But putting jokes aside, most of the time it is difficult for medical professionals to find the right vein – because the skin is too thin or too sensitive, the veins have a strange position or the nurse or the phlebotomists have the worst day ever and miss the vein in spite of every attempt.
A simpler and cheaper solution would be scanners that let phlebotomists see the veins below the skin – without the need to develop X-ray eyes. There are already such examples – let’s look at VeinViewer.
How does VeinViewer work?
The VeinViewer device attaches to a movable arm that can be wheeled into position, to keep it steady while observing a patient’s arm. The information is captured and projected digitally in real time directly onto the surface of the skin through near-infrared light which is absorbed by blood and reflected by surrounding tissue. It provides a real time accurate image of the patient’s blood pattern. VeinViewer allows you to see blood patterns up to 15 mm deep and clinically relevant veins up to 10 mm. Special features might allow a clinician to find turns in a person’s veins, called bifurcations, and valves.
The medical professional can also take up to 200 static images of patient vasculature – the arrangement of blood vessels in the body. With the utilization of VeinViewer, clinicians can potentially avoid complications from accidental puncture and they can improve the total vascular access procedure, not just the stick.
‘Only VeinViewer can provide pre, during and post-access benefits throughout the entire vascular access procedure,’ said George Pinho, president of Christie Medical Holding, the company specializing in the production of the vein scanner. ‘It is also the only device of its kind that has been shown through clinical studies to increase both first-stick success and patient satisfaction by up to 100 per cent while reducing medically unnecessary [catheter] lines by over 30 percent.’
Doctors believe it might be especially beneficial to use the VeinViewer on children who come to the hospital and are terribly afraid of needles. According to the study of Clinical Medical Holdings, the first attempt stick-rate success by critically ill children improved 70 per cent and the time spent with the procedure was shortened by more than 5 minutes.
So why don’t we find vein scanners in every hospital yet?
Although the VeinViewer seems to be the ultimate solution for revolutionizing blood draws, it is too expensive and too rare to find. It costs approximately $1500, and is not available for many professionals worldwide. However, there is a new and free alternative in the form of an iOS app (no Android version yet) called VeinSeek which promises to show veins with increased contrast in comparison to the skin by using images produced by the processing technique and utilizing the optical properties of the skin itself.
Some reviews praise it, others raise concerns about how useful it is, but being a free app, the algorithm could be easily tweaked to make it work. I gave it a try and had nice results. With good lighting and angles, I could see the veins below my skin.
It could underscore the notion that disruption is only useful if it is affordable. If the technology is developed but the price is high, it’s not disruptive enough.
While vein scanners are useful but expensive devices, not accessible by many, disruptive innovation is only good enough if it is cheap and accessible, not only ground-breaking. It seems there is a trend to support this, because such an app can provide a certain amount of help for professionals. It will hopefully be developed further.