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Medica goes Wireless

November 23rd, 2010 |  Published in eHealth & Assisted Living  |  8 Comments

Medica claims to be the world’s largest medical show.  It’s a very monochrome event – all of the equipment is white and shiny, and most of the exhibitors and visitors are soberly dressed in dark suits, as befits the serious profession of medicine and spending money in Dusseldorf.  Looking at the equipment on display and the crowds thronging the show, you certainly wouldn’t get any impression that there’s a recession around, other than slightly more suits than normal and rather fewer bow-ties around the necks of the visiting consultants.

As far as the medical industry is concerned, it’s business as usual, and hopefully more so, as more of us get older and less healthy.  But there are some interesting trends.  One of which is the increased prevalence of wireless connectivity.  In previous years equipment manufacturers were happy for nurses to jot down the readings from their instruments.  A few devices had wireless links, but they were the exception.  This year, particularly at the consumer end of the market, wireless was becoming the norm, at least at the top end of product ranges.

Almost all of that was Bluetooth.  I stopped counting after the first hundred devices, and that was in just two of the twenty halls.  ANT was in evidence, helped with a demonstration of a prototype X10 Nano phone from Sony Ericsson, which was using the ANT protocol to connect to a weighing scale, heart rate belt and pedometer.  Wi-Fi was there in a few products, but mostly confined to tags for asset management, and I failed to find a single ZigBee medical device.  There also seemed to be very little profile for the Continua Alliance in terms of products or signage.  Even The Intel stand was conspicuously Continua-free.

So what can you do with Bluetooth?  There’s always been a fair number of medical products with Bluetooth connectivity, but on the evidence of Medica it appears to have swelled from a trickle to a flood.  Although Bluetooth has developed a Health Device Profile, which allows devices to transfer data according to the IEEE 11073 standard Device Specialisations, most manufacturers have ignored this and are simply using Bluetooth as a cable replacement, developing their own proprietary protocols.  The disadvantage of this approach is that there is no interoperability between these products.  It means developers need to tweak their applications for each individual product.  In the longer term I hope that these products will move to interoperable designs, using either Bluetooth’s Health Device Profile, or the interoperable services that are being developed within the new Bluetooth low energy standard.

Nevertheless, the industry is obviously taking to heart the ability to record readings automatically.  There was stand after stand with glucose meters, each boasting ten or more different models, and in almost every case with at least one of them having a Bluetooth option.  To give an idea of the scale of Medica, I’d estimate that there were in excess of 2,000 different glucose meters on display, with a least a tenth of them incorporating a Bluetooth link.  There were a similar number of blood pressure meters, from cheap wrist based products, through to complex clinical devices, again with Bluetooth available in most ranges.

At the consumer end of the market, i.e. non-regulated devices, there were Bluetooth weighing scales from the leaders, as well as from the minnows on the shoe box cubicles in the China and Korea pavilions.  The medical companies seem to have got the message that Bluetooth is the radio for medical devices. 

In fact there weren’t many vital signs that you couldn’t measure using Bluetooth.  Companies were displaying ECGs, gait sensors, spirometers, pedometers, nasal and aural airflow monitors, CPAP pressure meters, thermometers, heart rate meters and even urine flow meters.

Of course, adding Bluetooth to a medical device doesn’t do any more than replace a cable.  What makes it a lot more interesting is when you connect it up to a health hub or mobile phone, collect the data and feed it into an application that provides useful input to a clinician or carer, or compelling feedback to the patient themselves.  A number of companies have developed down these routes and were displaying real commercial systems using Bluetooth enabled medical products.  The most prominent of these were Vitaphone, Bodytel and smartLAB.  Adding up the numbers they gave me, they claim to be monitoring around three quarters of a million users, mostly within Europe.  That’s a very respectable number for an industry that is still in its infancy and which is only just starting to develop its business models, particularly as that growth has been with proprietary products

It was surprising that these services are still very much in the minority.  I’d estimate that they account for less than a fraction of one percent of the companies at Medica.  That may be partly due to the fact that Medica is still very much an equipment show.  Most of the visitors still go there to buy hardware for their current medical business model, not to look at the potential disruption of a new, patient centric one.  But the equipment that will cause that disruption to accelerate is definitely beginning to appear on the stands. 

The other thing missing from Medica was medical and health apps for smartphones.  The previous week, research2guidance had predicted that by 2015, 500 million people will be using healthcare applications on their phones. A visitor to Medica would have barely realised that they exist, let alone that they exist in their thousands.   A few were around, but you needed to hunt them down.  That was a notable omission.  Coupled to the rise of connected products, they will enable a level of disruption that the current industry is still desperately trying to deny.  I was struck by the number of products designers who came up and asked me about Bluetooth low energy, as they see this as the technology that will drive this disruption.  It will take time for a critical mass of these products to appear, but when they do, Medica and the industry as a whole will face a greater change than any they have seen in the last fifty years.

8 comments ↓

#1 David Doherty, 3G Doctor on 11.23.10 at 7:59 pm

Nick,

Thanks very much for sharing your experience, amazing that you’ve managed to find so many wireless devices as they’ve been few and far between in previous years.

“Bluetooth low energy… …the technology that will drive this disruption”

Couldn’t agree more.

“The other thing missing from Medica was medical and health apps for smartphones”

The sheer size of this event does make it hard (especially on the feet!) but there were some to be found eg. on Qualcomm’s Wireless Health Pavilion (Hall 15, Stand D04) UK company OBSMedical.com was demoing their long term condition monitoring app.

#2 Nick on 11.24.10 at 9:50 am

Agreed, but it was hard work finding them. I’ve updated the post with a reference to the reserch2guidance projections that 500 million of us will be using them by 2015. Medica was a strong indication that any growth like that will be coming from outside the medical industry and not from within it.

#3 Tweets that mention Medica goes wireless | Creative Connectivity -- Topsy.com on 11.25.10 at 7:35 pm

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by WSN Observation, David Doherty. David Doherty said: Nick Hunn: Medica goes Wireless http://bit.ly/hvObzf […]

#4 Harald Naumann on 11.25.10 at 9:20 pm

>Of course, adding Bluetooth to a medical device doesn’t do any more than replace a cable.

Sorry, I can´t agree. There is much more. And Bluetooth, Bluetooth LE and ANT is not all:
http://www.gsm-modem.de/M2M/tag/telemedicine/

Forecasts:
http://www.gsm-modem.de/M2M/tag/forecast/

Let us talk in 12 month again. Be surprised for sure.

Regards
Harald

#5 Nick on 11.25.10 at 11:36 pm

Harald,

I may be taking a very philosophical view, but any wireless link, whether short or wide area, is just a cable replacement. It potentially makes it easier to capture measurements, as the patient is no longer tethered with a cable, nor do they need to write something down or key it into a computer or phone. But that doesn’t make the product any more desirable or useful. To take that extra step requires software that captures the data and turns it into something that is useful and compelling for either the patient or a clinician. Unless that is part of the offering, any purchaser is wasting their money on buying a product just because “it has wireless in it”. Wireless is only useful when it is part of a larger solution.

Wide area connectivity is ccertainly important. In most cases I suspect that we will see devices use a short range link to get data to a phone, followed by a cellular link to transfer it to a patient record. However, I expect to see a lot of cases where data only goes as far as an applicaiton on the phone itself. Which becomes more popular will depend on the applications and service models that are developed. Ultimately, people will use those which they find useful.

Whilst I know that the GSM Association would love to see a cellular modem in every machine and keep on pushing that story, I don’t think that will happen. GSM is too power hungry and expensive to make sense to fit it directly into sports and medical devices and will remain so. The relative cost of a GSM modem to a Bluetooth chip has remained more or less static at around 10:1 for the last ten years and will probably remain so for the next ten. Both sell in the same volumes, so will see the same annual price decline. However, the power consumption ratio has changed significantly, with Bluetooth low energy now able to run off a coin cell for several years. In comparison, the battery life for current 3G modems is little different from that of 2G ones twenty yers ago. With that differential of price and performance, it makes far more sense to use the five billion cellular phones that will support Bluetooth low energy as gateways for multiple devices, rather than trying to ship an extra fifty millions cellular modems and network subscriptions.

#6 Harald Naumann on 11.27.10 at 4:02 pm

Invite to an ANT webinar from Nordic Semiconductor:

On Dec 15th, 02:00 p.m. GMT+1 Nordic will speak about: “ANT, the nRF24AP2 family represents the best in class solution for ultra-low power coin cell battery powered network applications” Registration at http://ow.ly/35reZ

ANT is a low-power wireless networking protocol. It has the same audience like Bluetooth Low Energy. In contrast to Bluetooth LE the ANT protocol allows full mesh network topology. Furthermore it is already widespread in sports and healthcare. The ANT alliance has more than 300 members (e.g. Adidas, Garmin or Timex). The member no. 300 was the manufacturer of phones, Sony Ericsson (press release http://ow.ly/35WZ5).

ANT dongles for the iPhone are available. In addition there are ANT-modems with USB and Mini/Micro SD interface on the market.

For end of next year smart phones with ANT and Bluetooth LE are promised. Who will win the race? The well-proven ANT or the new Bluetooth LE?

++++++

In the German computer magazine called Chip http://www.chip.de is this month (12/2010) a special report about the “Intelligent Home”. The DVD contains already apps for iPhone, IPad and for Android phones as well. They use it as remote control for “anything”. The Bluetooth LE or ANT link is just one more wireless link. The phones of today offer GSM and parallel WIFI, Bluetooth and GPS as well.

I call mobile phones already entertainment devices with telephone function.

One of the founders of Vitaphone was a customer of mine 15 years ago. I supported Vitaphone with GSM technology. Later on they was a customer of my carrier that has developed the service centre software on Oracle for them.

There is a market for both. There is a market for short range like Bluetooth LE and ANT as a link to the mobile phones and there is a market for GSM modules as well. As long the product designers do not know what ANT and Bluetooth LE is, they cannot start to design it in.

Bluetooth LE is short range only. Bluetooth LE linked to mobile phones means two Bluetooth LE radio plus GSM module inside mobile phone. You can be sure, that I am able to match the power consumption of mobile phone of today by using of a GSM module. Power consumption is no argument. 3 radio (2 Bluetooth LE + 1 GSM) will always charge more energy, than 1 GSM. The price is no argument too. The cheapest car in Germany was the Trabant: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trabant
They closed their doors and BMW, Porsche and Daimler is still alive.

At my blog http://www.gsm-modem.de/M2M I am writing once a week about some kind of wireless technology in average. Most or my Tweets on Twitter are related to wireless M2M too.

#7 Rob McCray on 11.30.10 at 11:24 pm

Connectivity is coming to MEDICA, but as show that is primarily focused on products in the market and distribution, it will lag the development of wireless health products and solutions. That said, we worked with CTIA and Qualcomm to have a Wireless Health Pavilion with about 20 companies in Hall 15 and will at least double its size next year.

#8 Chris Lewis on 12.22.10 at 12:03 am

Here’s one in the UK pavilion that wasn’t mentioned:

http://www.vpatch.com

It’s not Bluetooth, but it’s a real-time wireless ECG. We’re getting a lot of interest from Europe and Asia.

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About Creative Connectivity

Creative Connectivity is Nick Hunn's blog on aspects and applications of wireless connectivity. Having worked with wireless for over twenty years I've seen the best and worst of it and despair at how little of its potential is exploited.

I hope that's about to change, as the demands of healthcare, energy and transport apply pressure to use wireless more intelligently for consumer health devices, smart metering and telematics. These are my views on the subject - please let me know yours.

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