The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a renewed focus to the state of our healthcare system and the many challenges it faces. With hospitals overstretched, testing facilities thronged, equipment shortages and budgets tapped, COVID has forced us to look for new ways to improve the quality and delivery of care as reliably, cost-effectively and quickly as possible. Because of the highly infectious nature of COVID, the healthcare industry has also been forced to institute stricter precautions to protect healthcare workers, increasing the use of equipment and devices that allow caregivers to monitor patients remotely. The introduction of new technologies and applications not only help to automate routine evaluation and monitoring, but also to observe social distancing and enable tracking and tracing of individuals who may have come in contact with the virus.
At the same time that our healthcare systems are confronted by COVID, they must also contend with larger social and demographic challenges, such as an aging citizenry with long-term chronic conditions and increasing demand for healthcare from a growing population with limited access to medical care. These cultural impacts call for new approaches to healthcare that address the rising costs of treatments and medical professionals, and more flexible methodologies that can adapt to a spectrum of care models that may begin in a hospital setting and extend seamlessly to monitoring at home and to tracking of personal health and fitness. Technologies that can enable a continuum of approaches to healthcare offer the potential to reduce time, costs and labor expended on routine monitoring and tasks and allow healthcare facilities to allocate their resources to optimize impact and ameliorate outcomes.
Bluetooth low energy brings connectivity to a range of healthcare use cases
A new generation of connected medical devices and healthcare applications enabled with Bluetooth low energy (Bluetooth LE) is leading the way in automating certain medical-related tasks and responsibilities while meeting the strict regulatory requirements for data security and reliability. In addition, Bluetooth LE is the go-to wireless technology for many medical device OEMs, as it offers interoperability with other devices and systems as well as low-power control – a critical consideration for many remote monitoring scenarios, which rely on battery power to operate devices.
Bluetooth LE is an excellent choice for short range, low power data transmission from a sensor or device to a central hub or gateway. This can be a dedicated receiver, or it can be as user-friendly as a smartphone, which can then convey the data securely to the cloud via cellular service for processing. For healthcare monitoring and connected home health applications, BLE replaces awkward wires and cabling, bringing convenience for caregivers and increased comfort for patients, particularly as battery-powered devices allow much greater mobility and can be adapted for a wide range of environments, both within a hospital and at home.
Another important Bluetooth LE use case in healthcare settings involves new, more precise positioning and item finding capabilities. It’s easy to lose track of equipment, personnel and even patients in a busy hospital environment, and with RF-enabled tags and badges, Bluetooth LE is able to monitor location of medical instruments, supplies and individuals with real-time electronic mapping. These features cut down on time wasted looking for misplaced or lost items and can monitor supplies in short supply to help automate inventory and streamline supply chains. The latest version of Bluetooth LE now also offers Angle of Arrival and Angle of Departure features that determine the direction of signals transmitted between two Bluetooth LE devices to enable improved location accuracy. By estimating the distance and the angle between the two devices, Bluetooth Angle of Arrival features use trilateration to determine location accuracy down to sub-meter level, and track items to their exact position in a cupboard or on a shelf.
These tracking features also address another healthcare-related application of the COVID era, namely social distancing and contact tracing applications. Bluetooth can monitor and record the proximity of individuals in a workplace or other environment, triggering alerts when people breach safe distancing guidelines. If an individual becomes infected, others who came within close proximity can be traced and notified for testing or quarantine.
Secure, reliable connectivity for medical devices
Bluetooth LE is certainly the leader for low-power, low-cost, trusted wireless connectivity for many medical and healthcare applications. However, there is no one-size-fits-all wireless solution that addresses all medical device use cases, as there are multiple architectures and differing spatial and technical requirements. The optimal protocol will be dictated by specific user needs and intended uses of the application.
Within the walls of a hospital, Wi-Fi may be the wireless network of choice due to its large install base and roaming capabilities. Beyond the range of Bluetooth LE or Wi-Fi, 5G or GNSS may provide the necessary connectivity outdoors or in wide open spaces. But the good news is that there are many excellent wireless choices and Bluetooth LE is complimentary with nearly all of them, including Wi-Fi, GNSS, cellular, including 5G.
u-blox offers the building blocks to help developers and OEMs design solutions to meet the wireless connectivity requirements of a wide range of medical and healthcare environments and intended uses. Our wireless communication modules, which leverage Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology and low power wide area technologies, are fully integrated and offer built-in security, reliability, ease of use, and flexibility to help speed development and manufacturing of medical devices. In addition, we offer a full range of chips and modules that offer cellular, short range radio, and GNSS positioning technologies to meet the broader horizons of other healthcare applications, including real-time location services (RTLS) item finding and proximity solutions.
For instance, our Bluetooth 5.2 stand-alone NORA-B1 modules with Dual-core Arm® Cortex® M33 are designed to meet the needs of performance-oriented applications such as asset tracking, item finding, remote controls and gateways, and advanced medical wearables with demanding security requirements. The NORA-B1 offers direction finding support for indoor positioning and multi-protocol support for Bluetooth 5.2, Bluetooth mesh, Thread, Zigbee, and NFC.
In addition, the u-blox SARA-R5 modules featuring IoT Security-as-a-Service address the longevity and security imperatives of IoT devices that transmit sensitive medical or confidential data. The SARA-R5 series provides software-based multi-band configurability and international multi-regional coverage for secure cloud access with LTE-M/NB-IoT radio access technologies. The series also offers the option of an integrated u-blox M8 GNSS receiver chip and a separate GNSS antenna interface, as well as a version that is optimized for ultra low power consumption.
The market for smart health devices is expanding rapidly, driven by demographics, the global pandemic, and the rising cost of healthcare. Our wireless communication and positioning solutions can help you quickly address the opportunities and requirements of this market with components and modules that are designed for maximum security, reliability, energy efficiency, and ease of integration and use.