The long-term success of a treatment often depends on the ability of a medical professional to diagnose the problem correctly. This inevitably poses the task of a noninvasive or minimally invasive observation of the cavities and orifices of the body, such as ears, throat, nose, rectum or gastrointestinal tract through some sort of an optical device. Recently, veterinary and medical endoscopes have become crucial instruments in general practices.
The first attempts to invent and employ such tools in the medical practice date back to the early 19th century. However, endoscopes reached the necessary level of sophistication and technical quality only later. During the first half of the 20th century they won over the medical world becoming an absolutely indispensable tool in many areas of medicine and veterinary. This development is associated with the names of Georg Wolf, who started the industrial manufacturing of endoscopes in Berlin in 1906, and Karl Storz, whose company was founded in 1945. Both enterprises exist today and account for an important share of high quality endoscopic products available on the market.
The first endoscopes had a rigid body made of metal with optical lenses at both ends of the metal tube. Rigid endoscopes still account for a large part of the tools used in medicine, particularly in otolaryngology. However, a meaningful inspection of other parts of the human (or animal) body, such as the gastrointestinal tract, obviously requires an inspection device with a flexible body. This called for a different and creative approach on behalf of medical equipment manufacturers. As a result, flexible fiber optic endoscopes were invented in 1957. However, fiber optic devices had their drawbacks as well. Fibers are easily breakable, and when, with time, a certain amount of fibers get broken, the image quality may notably deteriorate.
A rod lens rigid endoscope was the next logical step in the development of endoscopic technology. The little lenses in this type of endoscope were replaced with glass rods that filled up the whole metal tube, which delivered much better image quality. Another truly revolutionary leap forward in the progress of endoscopy occurred when video endoscopy was introduced. Video endoscopes usually feature a flexible tube connected to an electronic unit with video capability. This allows the medical practitioner to see the proceedings of an inspection or a surgery on a larger external screen. An added advantage of this sort of tool is the opportunity not only to visualize, but to capture all or parts of the proceedings in the form of still photos or a video recording.
The development and manufacturing of endoscopes is a very dynamic and rapidly changing industry. Every year endoscopes are becoming more sophisticated, and advanced features are being added to new models constantly. Convenience of use and design ergonomics is one trendy area in the field. Programmable functions, one touch photo, video capturing, and touch screen technologies are quickly becoming a norm in video endoscopes. In an increasingly mobile world the ability of endoscopes to work in conjunction with such devices as smartphones and tablets has lately come to the forefront.
Some of the hot areas of development include 3D technology, which allow to visualize the observed area inside the human body in three dimensions. Newest 3D endoscopes feature 3D polarized glasses for the medical practitioner and a 3D monitor. Contrast visualization, such as fluorescence or different spectral ranges for different applications is another rapidly progressing area of innovation. Precision is of utmost concern whenever health is at stake, particularly during complex surgeries. That is why measurement capabilities are now becoming a necessary feature of high-end endoscopes. Although video endoscopes are the most rapidly evolving group, more traditional tools, such as optical rigid endoscopes are also advancing and getting transformed. For instance, rigid endoscopes with variable direction of view (as opposed to the fixed built-in DOV) are now being widely marketed.
It should be noted that technology in the endoscopic industry is, in a way, going faster than actual demand for innovations. In certain cases, such as with 3D endoscopes, it still remains debatable whether it delivers sufficient added value to motivate hospitals and medical practitioners to assume their high cost. Another trend clearly visible on today’s endoscope market is the growing quality of many standard line endoscopes. Tools made by relatively little-known brands and sold at moderate prices are rapidly approaching such big names as Olympus, Storz or Wolf in terms of functionality and overall performance.