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Improving patient outcomes through wireless M2M deployments/implementations

The NHS is currently facing one of the biggest challenges in its history. On the one hand, the public and Government alike are calling for improved patient outcomes and a better quality of care; on the other, budgets are being put under increased pressure as the UK enters a phase of widespread public austerity.

The Government has set the NHS the challenge of finding £20billion worth of efficiency savings by 2015, whilst also undertaking a wholesale reevaluation of the way in which the NHS operates. While the extent of the reform the NHS will have to undertake is still not clear, one thing is: the NHS needs to continue to improve the care it gives patients without a corresponding increase in budget. To attain this target, the NHS is going to have to embrace new ways of working and new ways of delivering care.

Technology is clearly going to have an important role to play in the NHS of the future. Today, a range of new technologies have come to market that promise to improve the ways in which patients can be monitored. These represent improvements that will lead to better compliance with prescribed treatments, faster reaction times to medical emergencies and, ultimately, better outcomes for patients across the board.

One such development is the integration of wireless modules into medical devices, an approach that is enabling wholly new methods of treating patients.

Firstly, integrating wireless modules into healthcare devices means that patients can now increasingly be monitored remotely. In turn, this means the time that patients actually need to spend within the hospital can be cut dramatically without adversely affecting their health. The ability to transmit patient health data wirelessly (including such 'vitals' as heart rate and temperature) from home to healthcare facility means that patients can be monitored remotely wherever they may be. This is likely to provide patients with a much more agreeable (not to mention affordable) environment in which to convalesce; keeping them connected to their physician while test results and feedback on their health issues can be transmitted in real time.

The use of wireless modules within overall technology solutions for healthcare also means that the exchange of medical information can be accelerated. This seamless and secure transmission of information – from health care professional to hospital, care facility or even patient – may reduce health expenditures and increase possible scenarios for home care in the future. In this way, much needed beds in hospitals and other primary care facilities can be freed up.

With modern advances in medical care, most people with diabetes can now manage their condition effectively and live otherwise normal, healthy lives. To stay on top of diabetes, however, patients need to closely track their blood glucose levels and this is where mobile solutions can help.

Integrating wireless communications into medical devices isn't a recent development. One of the first instances of mobile data collection for diabetes was tested in 2005, when the Norwegian Centre for Telemedicine developed a prototype. This system connected a glucometer to the mobile phone network using a Bluetooth module developed in house. Once at the mobile phone, the data was transmitted via SMS to a preset telephone number. One conclusion from this study was that use of GPRS/3G should be considered instead of SMS, to lower the cost of operation.

One company which is taking this approach is Positive ID, which uses Sierra Wireless AirPrime embedded modules in its iglucose mobile health solution for real time diabetes management. iglucose addresses the 'mismanagement' of diabetes by providing access to live data and realtime notifications. It facilitates both management of the condition and monitoring of compliance to a treatment plan.

iglucose works by wirelessly enabling data capable glucometers. Once a patient takes a glucose reading, the device communicates the results to a 'cloud' based database, accessible to patients and to their healthcare providers. The service provides both tracking over time and real time feedback for patients and their caregivers, flagging issues for medical attention before they become critical.

While this example demonstrates what is already being achieved today, it is really just the tip of the iceberg. Machine to machine – or M2M –communications is set to open up a vast range of possibilities for innovative applications in healthcare that can improve the lives of patients and the quality of care available to them. But for this goal to be realised, OEMs must look to integrate the right technologies, based on the specific requirements of the healthcare sector.

The most important aspect to be considered is security. The nature of the information that will be transmitted wirelessly is extremely personal and highly sensitive and therefore must be protected comprehensively. In wireless health care, security for transferring sensitive private information is performed by using a combination of different features available on the mobile embedded wireless module, providing endpoint authentication and communication confidentiality over networks. Cellular encryption technology, communication protocols
used for the Internet and other similar networks (TCP/IP), cryptographic protocols at the transport layer (SSL) and virtual private networks (VPN) all combine to make the data travelling over the network seamless and secure.

The applications of wireless technology within healthcare are incredibly diverse, spanning anything from diabetes monitoring, heart monitoring and hypertension to sleep disorders, ultrasounds and MRIs. The resulting data from these applications also varies greatly in size – from a few kilobytes to extremely large files. Due to this, information transfer for some data rich applications will require high speed broadband capabilities and high quality of service levels enabled through 2G/3G/4G wireless technology. To support these capabilities in multiple countries around the world, devices will need to be compatible with a wide range of network technologies, including GPRS, EDGE, CDMA, WCDMA, TD-SCDMA and HSPA.

As the UK's healthcare system comes under increased pressure, therefore, there is a significant case to be made for the efficiencies that wireless technology can bring to the NHS. Wireless modules embedded in medical equipment help relieve the stress on the system by improving the long term management of chronic illnesses outside of the hospital. This alleviates time pressures on healthcare providers while enabling more effective and less intrusive care for patients, many of whom may have difficulty travelling to the hospital or clinic. Sierra Wireless believes that wireless modules have an important role to play in the healthcare system of the UK and other countries, helping them to be more flexible and efficient while providing ever higher levels of service to their patients.

Author profile:
Olivier Pauzet is senior director, marketing and market strategy, for Sierra Wireless.

Olivier Pauzet

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