How can Bluetooth benefit the healthcare system?

2 Jun 2017

Paramedics can use Bluetooth to send real-time information about a patient before they reach the ER. Image: Alberto Zanardo/Shutterstock

For some of us, Bluetooth is just an extra feature on our phones. For others, it could be potentially life-saving. Here, U-blox discusses the potential benefits to be reaped by the healthcare industry.

Although people intuitively see the human body and mind as somehow distinct from the hard machinery of science and engineering, the healthcare industry has always been an early adopter of the new technologies; from the first surgical tools and prosthetic limbs to more recent innovations, such as MRI scans, heart pacemakers and wearable monitoring devices.

That trend of rapid technology adoption continues. By combining the extreme miniaturisation enabled by semiconductor fabrication with advances in complementary fields, such as advanced materials and batteries, we can now place powerful technology almost anywhere we want. Medical devices that used to be wired can now be made portable or even wearable, enabling new application uses. The final link that ties them all seamlessly together, and makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, is ‘wireless’.

What we’ve just described fits broadly under the banner of the internet of things (IoT). IoT brings the network effect to healthcare, creating entirely new applications for diagnostic and monitoring equipment in healthcare facilities, and new opportunities for care in the home environment.

Bluetooth benefits

There are numerous wireless protocols jockeying for position in the IoT market. Each technology offers varying strengths in a range of critical requirements: bandwidth, range and power usage. While there is a part to play in healthcare for several different wireless protocols, the mature and robust wireless technology that seems perfect for very wide use in medical applications is Bluetooth.

It’s important to realise that features such as low power consumption, robustness (frequency hopping), low cost and widespread technology availability (large ecosystem) really start to come into their own in a medical IoT scenario. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) complements longer-range wireless technologies, and makes optimum use of available frequency spectrum for applications that do not require extended range. It is ideal in that it is mobile, robust and has an established ecosystem in standard mobile devices.

Medical care is costly, often relying on expensive, state‑of‑the art equipment and facilities, and highly trained staff. If healthcare can use those human and physical resources more efficiently, then there’s great potential for cost savings, particularly by reducing expenditure on routine tasks. BLE is a useful technology in that process. Let’s look at some potential applications:

Connected home health

The IoT makes it possible to reap enormous savings, increases in efficiency and improvements in patient comfort, by moving significant areas of patient care out of hospital wards and into the home. It’s becoming possible to monitor patients’ health wherever they are. Devices such as medical weight scales, heart-rate monitors and blood pressure monitors can track health and alert patients, families and caregivers to changes in vital signs, or missed medications.

The low-power, robust and ease-of-use characteristics of BLE are ideal for linking multiple monitoring devices to a local hub (such as a smartphone), which uses longer-range communications technologies to send data securely over the internet for analysis by caregivers. Such devices can potentially operate for years on a single tiny battery. For ease of use, some BLE hardware – such as the U‑blox NINA‑B1 – supports an optional, time-saving pairing method called out-of-band, in which the two devices just have to be moved close together to achieve automatic secure pairing.

Connected medication

Hospital patients are often connected to multiple healthcare devices. Simply doing away with wires provides profound benefits, saving staff time, reducing risk of error and making patients more comfortable. Electrocardiography monitors and blood pressure sensors can transfer vital sign data wirelessly to the hospital’s central monitoring systems.

In a typical hospital application, a nurse uses a lightweight, handheld scanner to scan a patient’s wrist barcode, and it contacts the infusion pump via Bluetooth to identify the patient. With oversight from the hospital’s central monitoring system, input from wearable monitors on the patient and other safeguards, the infusion pump can then provide the correct fluids and timed medication to that patient.

Connected inventory

Real-time blood bank monitoring is another attractive application. Blood must be stored within a certain temperature range, or it may not be safe for use. Each blood bag is tagged with a tiny reusable tracer that tracks the temperature via a BLE module. The sensor spends most of its life sitting quietly on the shelf in sleep mode, but is programmed to wake up when it detects physical movement. It indicates the validity of the blood via an LED and advertises its presence via BLE. It then sends collected environmental data to a smartphone or a Bluetooth gateway. A tailored app can calculate the remaining storage time for the blood based on the logged temperatures stored in the sensor.

BLE is ideal for this use case, as it is supported by smartphones and tablets, and it provides reliable wireless connectivity with the lowest power consumption. Also, BLE can be used to quickly keep track of location of blood bags. Similar use cases can also be seen in other applications tracking inventory, equipment and staff.

Connected monitoring

As paramedics treat a patient in an ambulance on the way to hospital, the defibrillator can use BLE to send real-time information about the patient’s status to a gateway inside the vehicle. This information is automatically transferred to the defibrillator manufacturer’s cloud service. Hospitals can subscribe to this service to be better prepared when the patient arrives at the ER. Obviously, a similar process of real-time information gathering can also be used with other equipment in ambulances.

A version of this article originally appeared on U-blox’s blog. For more information on use cases and regulatory approvals for wireless medical devices, click here.