At its last Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple released several new enhancements to its iOS mobile device operating system. The new release included new feature called iBeacon, an indoor positioning system that will have significant uses in many industries, such as retail and healthcare.
iBeacon runs on low-powered, low-cost transmitters that alert iOS 7 devices to their presence. These devices communicate using Bluetooth 4.0, also known as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).
Bluetooth Low Energy could open the door for several valuable healthcare use cases.
There are several creative uses where Bluetooth medical devices could fit in the healthcare marketplace. The retail industry can also leverage iBeacon to notify in-store customers of product information and specials when they near the tags embedded in some of their shelves. The technology can also provide a way for customers to navigate inside the store and interact with messaging ties to certain merchandise sections.
Another use of this is within museums, where visitors can use their smartphones to learn detailed information about the different exhibits as they approach them.
Within healthcare, we have seen a significant use of location technologies to keep tabs on devices, assets and patients. Applications from asset and bed management to patient tracking utilize active and passive radio-frequency identification, as well as Wi-Fi, to locate property and people. These cases turn out to be beneficial uses of the technology.
In the past, real-time location system (RTLS) products initially required tablets and laptops or stations with special readers or scanners to identify any tags they came in contact with. This limited the possibility of interacting with mobile devices such as smartphones.
Near-field communication, which leverages mobile devices such as Android phones that have built-in NFC readers and transmitters, allows smartphones to exchange information with NFC tags at close range by simply scanning the tags. However, healthcare has yet to embrace this technology in large numbers.
The use of iBeacon can bridge the gap. In theory, since it's on board iPhones, BLE could open the door for several valuable healthcare use cases:
Medical devices: In most current RTLS implementations, we find end users, whether they are bioengineers or nurses, can locate devices within their facilities or at least have some visibility of where the device is. However, if there is more than one device in that same location, users must perform the extra verification step of physically reviewing the serial number and confirming it's the same device.
Hospital indoor navigation systems: Since the introduction of GPS in smartphones, many people use their mobile phones to help find their way to a destination. However, there has not been a large implementation of indoor navigation systems. With the use of Bluetooth medical devices containing BLE technology and with a significant number of mobile devices supporting this technology, indoor navigation will become possible. Patients and hospital visitors can use their phones to get assistance to their destination. By offering this functionality, patients will be pleased to find that they can find their way within the hospital facility, thus improving their satisfaction.
Event triggers: An RTLS offers automation capabilities that help streamline many clinical processes. Some of the workflows can trigger actions when specific assets or individuals enter the facility or cross into specific areas. Bluetooth Low Energy can enable much-improved functionality. IBeacon can assist hospital staff via their mobile phone when they are near specific devices or tags. Another event trigger that may prove valuable to clinicians is automatic logon. For example, the system can authenticate a user and automatically log them on to EHR systems when they near a workstation enabled via BLE. This would give providers a much smoother, quicker method to automatically log on to certain systems by their simply being a foot away from the tag or station. Similarly, a workstation can automatically lock its session when a provider moves away from it.
Interactive and contextual clinical content: Mobile health continues to introduce new and innovative ways to help health organizations engage patients. Hospitals are evaluating different tools that can enable patients, keep them connected to their healthcare providers and improve outcomes. With BLE, patients can use their smartphones or mobile devices to have an interactive experience around the hospital and receive detailed information about their care, or even automate check-in at an imaging center. Another use for Bluetooth medical devices would be to inform patients in the waiting room about the latest and greatest technological advancement that the hospital offers, based on the specific areas or specialists that the patients visit.
While RTLS might have required hardware or software add-ons in order to enable mobile devices to scan and detect tags, technology such as BLE has been included as part of a built-in, industry-standard technology. Mobile device manufacturers are offering the capability to leverage Bluetooth 4.0 to detect and interact with small, inexpensive tags. Retailers may be one of the first early adopters of BLE, due to its immense benefit to drive customized shopping experiences to shoppers while collecting data on how customers navigate their stores. However, BLE clearly has all the ingredients to make for a very disruptive technology for many markets, including healthcare. Costs might still be a little high for the individual BLE devices, but over time these prices will go down.
Reda Chouffani is vice president of development at Biz Technology Solutions Inc., which provides software design, development and deployment services for the healthcare industry. Let us know what you think about the story; email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact @SearchHealthIT on Twitter.
This was first published in January 2014