Medica goes Wireless

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.