Making the case for Bluetooth in healthcare

By Brian Dolan

Michael Foley, Bluetooth SIGBy Michael Foley, Ph.D., executive director, Bluetooth SIG

With 20 million devices in the marketplace today, Bluetooth technology is already the de facto wireless standard for health and fitness devices. Whether the device is a defibrillator, weight scale, heart rate belt, glucose meter or a Wii Fit Balance Board, manufacturers have been enthusiastic in choosing Bluetooth technology as their device connectivity solution.

This success hasn’t come by chance. Bluetooth technology offers advantages other wireless options, whether standard or proprietary, cannot. Key Bluetooth benefits are:

• Excellent resistance to interference
• Best in class security
• Power optimization
• A royalty-free licensing regime that gives manufacturers the confidence to use the technology without complicated IP issues
• Low cost; both as a result of the specification design and the economy of scale accruing from the production of the billions of silicon chips by multiple vendors
• Security of supply from that same range of silicon vendors
• Market presence; Bluetooth technology is the short range radio of choice in mobile phones
• Support from a community of over 12,000 member companies

Medical devices are still not perfect; they have an Achilles’ heel, which is the proprietary manner in which data is formatted. This weakness means that similar devices from different vendors cannot talk to the same application. But, the Bluetooth SIG is already working to remove this challenge. With the cooperation of the Continua Alliance and the IEEE 11073 Personal Health Devices group, the SIG has brought a Health Device Profile to market. This profile was chosen as the wireless transport by the Continua Health Alliance and is serving as the first joint step in removing the barriers of proprietary data formatting and, at the same time, bringing interoperability to the medical market.

However, this is only the tip of the healthcare iceberg. The next, vital steps to success in this market segment are reducing the cost and improving the interoperability of mobile devices. These steps will change the scale of the healthcare market by multiple orders of magnitude. Today, over half of the world’s population owns a mobile phone and the majority of these devices include Bluetooth technology. The next Bluetooth standard, which will be known as Bluetooth low energy, will enable a new generation of battery-powered health and fitness devices to talk directly to web-based applications. Through the use of a gateway technology, new phones will now be able to work with Internet ready Bluetooth low energy devices. Growing through the power of the scale and customer reach of the mobile networks and handset manufacturers, Bluetooth low energy has the potential to bring health monitoring to the entire world.

This change cannot come soon enough. The demographics of the world’s population are changing. Advances in hygiene and medicine have brought us longer life, but also the opportunity for an increased number of years of ill-health and a growing incidence of long-term chronic conditions. The models on which we have built our healthcare systems for the last few centuries cannot stand up to these pressures and the resulting cost increases that stress an ever-greater part of our yearly GDPs.

By harnessing the power of technology, we can address these issues and help people stay well through the promotion of healthy, independent lifestyles. Technology may not directly cure people—that may or may not prove to be economically feasible or even possible given the growing number of individuals affected by of long-term chronic conditions—but it can be used to educate the entire population, from active youth to parents to grandparents, and to help them look after their own health.

Life and health exist in a continuous spectrum. In our youth, healthcare may involve information about the way we play and our social interactions. As we grow and begin to have our own children, healthcare may become more about staying fit and finding ways to cope effectively with the pressures of work, mortgage and family. As our populations age, we are seeing more and more individuals succumbing to long-term, chronic diseases. Our task is to find the best way to manage these conditions, which have become part of our everyday lives. And, as we watch our grandchildren grow up, we will likely need help managing our surroundings—supports that can help us to live independently, with peace of mind for ourselves and for our families.

The capabilities and, most importantly, the ubiquity of Bluetooth technology are key to making these healthcare improvements possible. Although some applications are possible with classic Bluetooth technology, the coming version of the standard will help support complex medical sensors and enable applications such as simple detectors for assisted living that need to run for years on a single battery. By using the established ubiquity of mobile phones to simplify connection to the Internet, Bluetooth technology will also give developers, whether they are medics, researchers, or enthusiasts within disease support groups, the opportunity to write software and web applications that help us all to stay healthier.

Bluetooth technology provides the platform for the innovation we need in healthcare. There is no other wireless connectivity option that has the scale required to enable us to progress from today’s deployments of personal medical devices to a few thousand users to what is anticipated to be a global deployment of hundreds of millions of devices. Bluetooth technology is the only route to universal, connected healthcare.