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Bluetooth 4.0 standard could advance use of wireless medical devices

Expected to make its way into devices next year, the Bluetooth 4.0 standard and its low-power features could enable more hospital diagnostics and home monitoring devices.

Bluetooth 4.0, the latest core specification of the wireless protocol, was written in large part to reduce the power drain of mobile devices. According to Mike Foley, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), this feature could enable a proliferation of health care applications and wireless medical devices.

The industry-based SIG developed the new standard while keeping in mind product manufacturers' need to integrate Bluetooth into devices powered by "button" or "coin" cells. In disposable devices, these thin batteries are not replaceable; but in longer-lived devices, they can be. Either way, they are expected to last as long as a year in disposable devices, so Bluetooth communications can't drain them early; in theory, the Bluetooth 4.0 standard helps accomplish this.

In the consumer arena, devices can include such wireless home fitness-monitoring devices as pedometers or run-charting transmitters built into shoes. On the medical side, the new standard will enable wireless patient monitors and other devices to port measurements and statistics straight into electronic health record (EHR) systems, said Jack Corrao, a Bluetooth SIG member and technology consultant, many of whose clients are small physician and dental groups.

The hope, Corrao said, is that Bluetooth devices can efficiently collect more -- and more meaningful -- information than current wired devices can, and do it before the physician, dentist or nurse sees the patient -- as opposed to these clinicians taking readings and fumbling with wired equipment throughout an appointment. Having the information beforehand will allow health care providers to devote more attention to the patient and, one would hope, to dispense better-quality care.

These devices also could be used for remote patient monitoring at home, Foley noted. In that case, the device would send data to a smartphone or computer, and relay it to a nurse or physician. At the receiving end, health care practitioners can assign alerts when a monitor shows that a patient's statistics indicate a problem.

"You can do a first-pass filter on the information, electronically, to see if anything's out of bounds," Foley said.

In addition to porting patient stats straight into an EHR system, Bluetooth-enabled medical devices could help cut down on transcription errors by patient or practitioner, and could check on a patient automatically at an appointed time. That's not always possible for busy health care practitioners in a hospital setting or for forgetful patients.

You should plan your Wi-Fi network so that you don't have the three common channels in use all in the same proximity.

Mike Foley, executive director, Bluetooth SIG

For hospital spectrum managers trying to reconcile limited Wi-Fi channels in a busy emergency room already crowded with a number of devices, Bluetooth devices are self-adjusting, jumping around within bands and finding open frequency pockets 1,600 times a second when they detect other devices broadcasting, Foley said.

But that only goes so far. When a band is full, it's not possible to add a Bluetooth device to the mix.

"Bluetooth is very robust and designed to detect and work around other things within that spectrum," Foley said. "That being said, if the entire spectrum is full, something's got to give, and you're going to run into issues. [T]here is going to be some interference, there's no getting around that."

To avoid interference, "You should plan your Wi-Fi network so that you don't have the three common channels [in use] all in the same proximity. Use good network planning so that they're adjacent, and that gives more spectrum for everyone," Foley said.

In terms of security, wireless medical devices that support Bluetooth can pass encrypted information to smartphones, Foley said. For compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), however, hospitals need to check with device manufacturers about how custom encryption would work for a particular signal relayed between a phone and server.

"I think the dream is to have something truly hacker-free," Corrao said. "I won't say it's impossible, but I think Bluetooth has as good as any capability for a common platform for security. . . . [W]ith 4.0, they've made major strides to prevent a majority of people from going in and getting [HIPAA-protected] data."

The SIG released the Bluetooth 4.0 standard in July, and cell phone manufacturers are starting to support reception of Bluetooth 4.0 signals in their phones. Foley estimated that it will be 2011 before medical monitoring devices transmitting Bluetooth 4.0 signals actually hit the market.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Don Fluckinger, Features Writer.

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