How ultra-thin glass fibers help doctors spot ailments and save lives

Ben Franklin’s famous assertion that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” still echoes through the halls of American health care institutions. But regulatory changes and an increased focus on catching afflictions before they take hold offer patients more preventative care procedures today than ever before.

The spotlight on preventative care has illuminated other aspects of health care: patient comfort, safety, and satisfaction. Medical professionals in clinics and hospitals understand the importance of patient comfort, and they’re demanding technology that improves their ability to diagnose an illness or affliction while ensuring procedures are as painless as possible for patients.

But the marriage of these highly specialized instruments and patient well-being creates challenges for the manufacturers developing these tools. One such advanced technology is particularly difficult to manufacture. Used in hospitals to examine the lungs, stomach, kidneys, and more, the endoscope is a seemingly simple piece of medical equipment that is incredibly complex to construct, but offers physicians a safer way of understanding the inside of the body to improve preventative care.

Putting patients first

About 10 percent of Americans will have kidney or ureteral stones during their lives, and the number of kidney stone incidences is rising. This often painful experience can be diagnosed and treated before invasive surgery is required, and the national discussion about preventative care should continue to improve diagnosis and treatment options. Still, American adults aren’t taking advantage of the full range of preventative care treatments available to them.

Perhaps this is because the procedures weren’t always as simple or comfortable — the earliest endoscopes were rigid glass tubes. But a focus on patient comfort and improved visibility for doctors led to years of refinement that have created endoscopes varying in size, flexibility, and material, depending on the device’s intended use.

Ureteroscopes, which can be used to diagnose and sometimes treat kidney or ureteral stones, can be as small as 2.5 millimeters in diameter. These long, thin endoscopes must be flexible and smooth, but also reliable enough to help doctors accurately diagnose maladies of the bladder, kidneys, or ureters.

Tasked with illuminating organs or cavities, endoscopes allow a medical professional to thoroughly examine a patient without the use of invasive surgery. Endoscopes can be equipped with specialized lighting and imaging equipment to examine certain areas of the body, like the lungs (bronchoscopes), stomach and throat (gastroscopes), and joints (arthroscopes).

Improving care with lighting technology

Endoscopes are equipped with incredible lighting and imaging tools. Sharp and clear, the pictures produced by these imaging systems allow doctors to make accurate diagnoses and prescribe more reliable and effective treatments.

The lighting and imaging systems can include more than 15,000 microfibers packaged together to create a solid beam of light. Each individual fiber is as thin as a human hair, and the complete lighting bundle for a ureteroscope, for example, is only 0.5 millimeters in diameter. Manufacturers spend weeks crafting a single bundle because the advanced methods and procedures require manufacturers to hand-make these systems. Only a few companies in the world are capable of the precision.

These imaging devices, known as leached fiber optic bundles, are also special in another way — they’re made of glass, but flexible. Manufacturers make these devices by dipping the majority of the bundle in an acid bath that leaches out elements that make it rigid. As a result, the bundle is strong but flexible, and doctors can maneuver light inside the body to more accurately examine an organ or joint while ensuring patient comfort.

Focusing on preventative care

As more health care providers focus on preventative care, the need for tools that help ensure accurate diagnoses while making patients comfortable is incredibly important. Endoscopes equipped with lighting and imaging bundles can help doctors and patients catch health problems early, and thus reduce the need for more invasive surgery in the future.

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Hi, I’m Vijay Shanbhag, Senior Sales Manager for SCHOTT’s medical imaging and lighting division. I’m responsible for managing new and existing sales of our surgical imaging and illumination products, which include leached fiber bundles and internal light guides for Endoscopy Market, to name a few. Our lighting products are used by medical professionals in numerous procedures, including surgeries, digital X-rays, in vitro diagnostics, endoscopies, and light therapies. I earned my master’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Toledo. In my spare time, I like to watch professional sports as well as all of my son’s sporting endeavors.

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