There is much debate over what kind of technology will prove most popular for wireless health applications.
Cambridge Consultants has developed many healthcare applications, including a Bluetooth wrist-worn device for monitoring. Robert Milner, principal engineer, sees a range of options emerging but thinks that systems able to communicate with users’ mobiles will be the first to emerge at consumer-oriented price-points.
‘Enabling technology is advancing,’ says Milner. ‘Accelerometers are cheap and Bluetooth and radios are down in price because of the handset and accessories market driving down prices.’
His colleague, Dharmendra Lad, also a principal engineer, sees the main applications for these being in the transmission of data. ‘They’ll be deployed in the hospital and the home so that physicians can monitor patients,’ he says. ‘Devices that can monitor users to ensure they’re taking the correct dosage at the right time or smart pills that they can take that transmit data back from within the body are emerging.’
Low-power radio systems are on the upsurge. As is common with many new areas, a conflict is brewing over definitions. ‘While the industry like to call things low-power radios or ultra low-power radios and there are debates regarding what constitutes a Body Area Network, a Local Area Network or a Wide Area Network, I don’t think it makes sense to differentiate,’ says Jones.
‘We’re talking about communications within a single room where the distance involved is plus or minus five metres. At Qualcomm, we think of the Body Area Network as existing in or around the body in combination with WAN radio. You can [use that] to pick up a physiological signal – for example, an asthmatic patient might have a peak flow meter and that application might not be just about peak flow but also the pollen count and the wind conditions in that particular environment.’
Gillibrand agrees; ‘The term low-power radio is frankly meaningless because it covers a spread from one microwatt to 500 millewatts,’ he says.
‘Bluetooth, for instance, is intended for high-volume markets with a range of 10 metres and lots of data but these are highly specialised areas.’
Barry Gillibrand, founder of Low Power Radio Solutions, cites his company’s involvement in a wide range; from supporting prosthetics to stimulating nerves via a radio-controlled device. It is also working with manufacturers of equipment such as stair lifts.
Even so the debate about the types of radio solution will win through continues. ‘Right now, there is no one radio,’ adds Jones. ‘It is safe to say that evolving low-energy Bluetooth will have many healthcare applications} and some of the problems with it are being resolved. However, lots of available systems don’t use it so the world of BAN radios is composed of a long, multi-modal list.’
Milner thinks Bluetooth has an early lead by virtue of the fact
there is such a large, installed base in users’ pockets already. ‘Bluetooth is the contender right now,’ he says. ‘The infrastructure has improved enormously both in the availability of network connections to people’s homes and in the cellular network. The gateway [into wireless healthcare] is either to put 3G capability in every device or to use Bluetooth, which has the highest penetration of any local wireless technology, from handsets. If you adopted something that wasn’t Bluetooth, you’d have to get the alternative installed in all those types of handsets.’