Technological advances, coupled with promises of lowered costs and improved customer care, are increasingly getting hospitals interested in wireless patient monitoring devices. According to ABI Research, 5.7 million patients will be monitored with a wireless medical device by 2014, compared with 320,000 today. This represents a $950 million market and a 770% compound annual growth rate, said Stan Schatt, vice president of ABI Research.
"We're seeing more and more medical devices being designed to have wireless connectivity," Schatt said. "For example, it's rather routine now if somebody gets a pacemaker. A doctor can go up to a patient, take out a device that communicates with the pacemaker and troubleshoot it. You can actually troubleshoot the pacemaker without having to go in and touch or remove it."
A recent example: St. Francis' Arrhythmia and Pacemaker Center installed a wireless pacemaker by St. Jude Medical Inc. into a New York woman who had suffered from a severe heart condition for the last two decades, according to Thomson Reuters. The hospital's server and the patient's pacemaker communicate at least once a day, downloading relevant data and alerting both doctor and patient of any unusual events.
Other leading vendors, including Transoma Medical Inc. and Medtronic Inc., also incorporate wireless technology into their cardiac rhythm management devices, according to life sciences consulting firm Greystone Associates Inc.
Upgrading existing networks to accommodate wireless medical devices
Hospitals have been quick to adopt wireless networks. Many facilities use Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, to tag and manage medical devices; their computers on wheels, moreover, are often connected to a wireless network and communicating with other devices in the hospital, Schatt said.
Having the network in place lowers the cost of entry into an expanded world of wireless medical devices, Schatt said. In addition, cellular service providers now offer more robust networks, designed specifically for machine-to-machine communications, and an aging population has increased the demand for health monitoring devices.
The federal government, which passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act earlier this year, is another key driving force. "The push for electronic medical records (EMR) is really a push to get information in a form where it can be pushed system to system," Schatt said. "I think we're going to see more and more devices that can push information electronically."
Weighing up-front costs, long-term benefits of wireless medical devices
Although the price tags attached to wireless medical devices are getting smaller, hospitals still face an up-front cost, especially because devices that communicate over a wireless network are more expensive than those that do not, Schatt noted.
In the current economy, the burden of proof falls on manufacturers, who must demonstrate the business value of their devices when they present their products to hospital administrators.
I think we're going to see more and more devices that can push information electronically.
Stan Schatt, vice president, ABI Research
"Mobile device manufactures are trying to make a business value proposition to them: 'Here's the return on investment,'" Schatt said.
The real benefits are that patients will have to visit a facility less often and that physicians will spend less time with the patients when they are there, which frees up their time to help more patients over the course of an eight-hour day. "It's soft money if you think about it," Schatt said of the savings realized through the use of wireless medical devices.
Deciding who will manage wireless services
As hospitals continue to rely on wireless medical devices, medical facilities must consider the management and maintenance ramifications. In addition to the IT considerations, hospitals also must meet Health Insurance Portability and Accountability (HIPAA) Act requirements regarding patient privacy and data security, Schatt said.
For those reasons, Schatt sees some hospitals hiring third-party managed services providers to tend to their communication needs, especially as they increasingly integrate wireless communications, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cell phone networks.
"I think there's tremendous potential down the road for managed services. There is a very good argument that it's very cost-effective," Schatt said.