The healthcare sector is an enormous market characterised by a high-cost base for the provision of patient care. That makes it an attractive market for wireless solutions because there is a clear need for the efficiencies and patient-care benefits such technologies can provide. In addition, healthcare providers have the patient volumes and the budgets to explore such systems.
As Don Jones, VP of health life sciences at Qualcomm, points out that in the US alone, there are 44 million hospital admissions each year and an additional 110 million emergency admissions. That’s clearly a market of significant scale and many new, wireless health applications are coming to market.
As hospitals and healthcare providers move into the 21st century they are deploying both local and wide area wireless networking and well as solutions for remote monitoring, dispensary and diagnosis. The agenda is being driven by spiralling demand for healthcare, on the one hand, and by the relentless pressure for efficiency on the other.
The need to slash public spending was made clear in the recent election campaign. But so strong is the demand for better health care that political leaders found themselves forced to promise a ring fence around health services. How can the Government square this circle? Mobile and wireless healthcare offer some hope to NHS administrators and health officials that they can deliver more but pay less.
‘Wireless technology can have a significant impact on cost efficiencies within an increasingly stressed health care system,’ says Olivier Baujard, vice president of market development for Sierra Wireless.
Over the next couple of years he expects the biggest demand to come from remote healthcare monitoring such as that of patients with implantable devices and remote treatment of chronic diseases.
‘We are already seeing end-user adoption rising and in some regions of the US, 73% of consumers are already using remote care monitoring services,’ he adds.
‘Transforming the treatment and management of chronic diseases with wireless remote monitoring and increasing medical compliance for millions of people will be the key to controlling costs, increasing the quality of medical services and reducing hospitalisations,’ says Baujard.
Increasingly, routine tasks will be automated leaving staff more time to provide a better service to patients.
In fact, the whole idea of telecare, where mobile technology is used remotely to manage and identify risk, seems to be gaining traction. It provides a practical answer for both patients and an already strained NHS in the UK. Think of the benefits of reducing the number of people entering residential care simply by having safety monitors installed at home which they can press if they feel like they need assistance.
A study of 131 telecare users in Yorkshire two years ago identified that it provided a saving of between £1,756 and £12,246 per person, with the average annual saving being around £3,600 per person.
Combined with blood-glucose meters and blood-pressure monitors, telecare becomes a powerful tool in the heathcare arsenal – enabling improvements for those suffering from heart disease, diabetes, respiratory and mental health problems.
Barry Gillibrand, founder of Low Power Radio Solutions, which provides solutions in the 30m to 1km range, certainly thinks so; ‘Health is a major emerging market. A lot of medical applications will emerge in the next few years, whether for diagnostics or for on-body equipment,’ he says.
According to Steve Edwards, head of IT development services at Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, access to applications and services means clinicians see more patients and they spend less time waiting for treatment.
Some hospitals have already begun the move by deploying wireless local area networks (WLANs) to deliver voice and data to a highly mobile workforce of doctors, nurses, porters and administrators.
‘This enables three key clinical objectives to be met,’ explains Roger Hockaday, director of marketing EMEA, Aruba Networks, ‘the need to speed diagnosis, improve treatment and reduce the risk of administrative errors. Put simply, WLANs bring knowledge closer to the patient.’
These need to be secure, simple to manage and must support voice and data imaging applications both within the hospital and at remote sites. Healthcare providers need to be accessible through wireless phones and voice badges at alltimes to enable instant notification and rapid response.
Lars Koelendorf, sales and segment manager, WLAN, HP Networking, comments: ‘Staff must be able to quickly access medical records, images and other clinical applications at the point of care,’ he says.
‘This allows for accurate administration of medications, efficient delivery of services and procedures, and electronic recording of treatments at patients’ bedsides. Computerised physician-order entry enables the accurate recording of medications and reduces time needed to send orders out to pharmacies.’
When people talk of wireless health or telemedicine, remote monitoring is one of the first areas that springs to mind. Wireless bandages are a prime example of this kind of technology. Basically, these consist of a printed circuit and a printed battery on something resembling a large
Band-Aid, but which in reality acts as a personal monitor. Wireless bandages can replace traditional hospital monitoring performed by nursing staff and provide data on vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure and repiratory rate. Those data can then be automatically entered into the patient’s health record enabling analysis and generating operating efficiencies in the hospital.
‘We think “Band-Aids” are likely to become a big category,’ says Jones. ‘We’re talking about a big market, in the hospital sector, of hundreds of millions of units per year. The majority will connect to the phone you already own if you have the right receiving radio in it. The holy grail is the consumer opens a box, hits the on/off button and is operational.’
Concerns remain about the security of such applications – especially since they transmit highly confidential patient data but Jones thinks these can be readily resolved and also foresees the price of such solutions coming down as volumes rise. ‘Most Band-Aids we’ve seen – and we’re following about 20 providers – initially are targeting a cost of US$15-30, so they’re relatively expensive,’ he says. ‘That price appears to be OK for the hospital market in the developed world because of the saving cost they can deliver but its certainly not a suitable price for the consumer market or for hospitals in the developing world.’
The cost of these items is higher than the norm – and they require a commitment in the back-end system to manage data. Dharmendra Lad, a principal engineer at Cambridge Consultants – a technology development company – points out: We’ve got to overcome the barrier of getting the first devices out there because, in the case of an organisation like the UK’s NHS, they not only need to justify the cost of the devices but also the cost of the systems needed to collate the data they transmit – so the cost barrier is higher than just the cost of the solutions.
‘While the services enabled are clearly very valuable, the cost of routine medical equipment such as a syringe or an inhaler is much lower… Those items are made for less than the cost of the electronics [in wireless healthcare solutions].
Robert Milner, also a principal engineer at Cambridge Consultants agrees; ‘At the moment, it’s about getting the first few of these applications out there so people can see that it is possible to make money and that this infrastructure is possible to develop further.’
Consequently Milner sees ap