New opportunities for medical devices

4 mins read

This past year saw the COVID-19 pandemic put the future of healthcare, and healthcare technology specifically, under a microscope.

Leading the way on that future is connected health, which looks to offload the healthcare system through self-monitoring Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, which has been made possible by new innovations like Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices.

Whether it’s a smart thermometer automatically feeding data back to a hospital’s cloud, or connected blood pressure meters that measure blood pressure readings over a longer period of time, the benefits of BLE make these applications viable thanks to a combination of low power requirements, disposable batteries, affordability, small solution size, built-in security and extensive IoT connectivity.

The IoT has already begun creating new opportunities for medical devices to help doctors improve patient care, and with new innovations like BLE, these devices are improving dramatically.

Take wearables, such as a wristband style blood pressure meter, as an example. Wearables and connected health go hand-in-hand. Today, if you need your blood pressure measured, typically you have it done at the doctor’s office. But for many patients, a trip to the doctor’s office, no matter what the reason, is not exactly a relaxed, care-free time. The stress of being in a doctor’s office alone might elevate a patient’s blood pressure reading higher than usual, resulting in inaccurate numbers.

With the help of BLE via a sensor node controller, patients can use a connected blood pressure meter at home, helping to ensure a more typically at-rest blood pressure reading, which is then transmitted straight to the cloud for your doctor’s office to access. That’s higher-quality information for both the doctor and the patient, leading to more accurate diagnoses and prescriptions.

Diabetics are another group of patients that can benefit from innovations in BLE. There is a clear trend away from traditional blood glucose monitors toward glucose meter patches, which don’t require patients to prick their fingers. Instead, injection devices such as insulin pens use BLE to send dosage and time stamp data, next to monitored glucose levels from patches, automatically to a smartphone app for self-monitoring and a doctor’s office or hospital, ensuring that healthcare providers are kept apprised of any changes as they occur in real-time. Not only is this a pain-free, longer-lasting alternative, it’s also a new way of gathering and storing data about patients’ glucose levels in real time, made conveniently accessible right on their phones for easy reference later on.

Smart inhalers are another example of how BLE and IoT connectivity are improving medical devices. Traditional inhalers require asthma patients to wait about 30-60 seconds in between puffs for the medication to go into effect. But studies have found that 84% of patients weren’t waiting 30 seconds (the bare minimum recommended time) in between inhalations. The majority of patients (54%) didn’t even wait 15 seconds between puffs, meaning they likely are not receiving their proper dosage of medicine.

As a result, inhalers aren’t as effective as they need to be, and the patient has no idea because they don’t have a doctor on-hand to provide immediate feedback. With the help of BLE, smart inhalers can address this problem, measuring the device’s usage in real-time and providing feedback about the effectiveness of a patient’s inhalations, the dosage they’re receiving and how frequently they’re receiving it.

If there is an underlying theme connecting devices such as wearables, smart glucose monitors and inhalers, it is that they are all able to be improved via the implementation of BLE. BLE devices with IoT connectivity have created the opportunity for remote self-monitoring, allowing patients and their caregivers to monitor their health and manage conditions at home.

Historically, connected medical device engineers have been challenged by a number of factors, such as cost and power availability.

For example, the bill of materials, for both the SoC and external components needed to design a smart blood pressure meter or smart inhaler, has been a major roadblock for engineers trying to deliver meaningful connectivity for these applications.

Meanwhile, power consumption and shelf life have also been major design hurdles.

Medical devices often have long shelf lives, lasting anywhere between 18 months and four years. If the SoC is not consuming power efficiently it simply won’t be able to keep up with user needs.

Tackling these challenges

To overcome these challenges, back in November 2019, Dialog introduced the DA14531. As the world’s smallest and most power-efficient Bluetooth 5.1 SoC, the DA14531 SoC and DA14531 module were designed specifically to simplify Bluetooth product development and enable wider adoption in industries such as healthcare.

The chip, also known as SmartBond TINY lowers the threshold in terms of cost of adding BLE functionality to a level where it’s not any longer prohibitive, even not for disposables. an application to as little as $0.50 in high volumes. The SoC’s high level of integration only requires six external passives, a single clock source and a power supply to make a complete Bluetooth low energy system. Combined with its ultra-small form factor of just 2.0 x 1.7 mm, the SmartBond TINY can easily fit into any medical device engineer’s design.

SmartBond TINY is based on a powerful 32-bit ARM Cortex M0+ with integrated memories and a complete set of analogue and digital peripherals, delivering a record score of 18300 on the latest IoTMark-BLE, the EEMBC benchmark for IoT connectivity.

Its architecture and resources allow it to be used as a standalone wireless microcontroller or as an RF data pipe extension for designs with existing microcontrollers.

TINY’s low power consumption also ensures a long operating and shelf life, even while powered by the smallest of batteries. The DA14531’s integrated DC-DC converter enables a wide operating voltage (1.1 to 3.3V) and derives power directly from environmentally-friendly, disposable silver oxide, zinc air or printable batteries required for high-volume applications, such as smart glucose monitors.

The future of BLE connectivity

As the list of devices requiring wireless connectivity continues to grow, so does pressure and cost of delivering a complete IoT system with medical applications. SmartBond TINY looks to address the growing breadth and costs of IoT devices by enabling a complete system cost reduction through a smaller footprint and size, while maintaining performance quality at a level unmatched by competitors.

The DA14531 makes it possible to extend wireless connectivity to applications where it would have previously been prohibitive in terms of size, power or cost, especially those within the growing connected medical field. In instances where wearable products will be considered to support medical monitoring functions, the DA1469x family is a perfect choice – it is fully equipped with an on-board sensor node controller and all functionality required for wearable-on-chip designs.

From blood pressure wearables to smartphone-connected glucose monitoring and connected inhalers, the number of connected medical devices that are possible is limitless - and so is the opportunity for innovating patients’ quality of life with BLE.

With the ability to turn any device into a connected application, the TINY SoC and module are opening new markets and driving the adoption of BLE beyond what was previously thought possible in today’s landscape.

Author details: Adrie Van Meijeren, Product Marketing Group Manager Low Power Connectivity, Dialog Semiconductor