Which wireless connectivity technology to choose for your smart medical device

What you should know before designing your healthcare IoT solutions

The Internet of Things – IoT in Healthcare – offers huge potential to make healthcare more accessible, affordable and efficient. It can’t cure people, but it can help healthcare providers take better care of their patients and give healthcare consumers more control of their personal health and wellness journey. In this series, specialists at Philips Engineering Solutions share their insights to help developers of smart medical devices get started in IoT in Healthcare.

The impact of IoT in healthcare

The purpose of IoT in Healthcare is to allow smart connected devices to capture or monitor data and transfer this collected information to an authorized person (physician, practitioners, nurses, etc.) or application to improve the quality and efficiency of the healthcare process. A connected ventilator, for example, can send patient and device data to help physicians better manage care for respiratory patients. A patient monitor can transmit vital signs from an ambulance to the hospital to save critical time.

Healthcare IoT devices have the potential to solve the pain points in healthcare by accelerating care, reducing costs, staffing and medical errors, and improving patient outcomes and financial results. But the connectivity technology you choose while designing your connected medical device can have a significant impact on its ultimate success.

Why is your wireless connectivity technology important for IoT in Healthcare?

To drive improvements in care quality and efficiency, data from the device has to get from A to B, whether that is from a patient’s home to a hospital or from one department in the hospital to another. It is important that the connectivity technology supports this data transfer in the best way possible. Factors to consider are connection frequency, amount of data to be sent and transmission speed, among other things. If the data is needed right away and there is a delay because the wrong connectivity technology is chosen, it can be the difference between moderate quality care and good care.

IoT in Healthcare – connectivity technology

So, what is IoT technology that you should consider? Some of the typical wireless connectivity technologies available are Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular. When choosing a connectivity technology, it’s important to consider how and where the device will be used, what connectivity technologies are already available and the requirements it must meet. You should also keep in mind your target group that will be using the device.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing your wireless connectivity technology:

Bluetooth technology is widely applied in healthcare

Bluetooth is a wireless technology for short-range voice and data communication. Unlike infrared wireless technologies, the communication can still take place when obstacles are in between the source and the destination. Bluetooth stands out for its low cost, which lies in the simplicity of the protocol, implemented by the BLE chipset, as well as its low power defined within the Bluetooth Low Power standard.

Bluetooth has been very successfully leveraged by the wireless headset industry. And there is a myriad of other use cases where Bluetooth has been successfully used: e.g. setting up Wi-Fi networks using Bluetooth, multimedia transfers and smart locks. A great example in the healthcare sector would be Bluetooth-enabled diabetes injection pen device where patients can use an app to help calculate the correct dosage to inject.

As with every wireless technology Bluetooth has its disadvantages. It offers slower data rates and less coverage, at least when compared with other wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi or cellular. In addition, it lacks direct connection to the internet, meaning it always requires pairing the Bluetooth device with a gateway, such as a smartphone, to connect to the cloud. For younger end users this can be a given since most of them have a mobile phone that can function as a gateway, but for older generations this can add complexity and cost to your product design.

Wi-Fi technology in home environments

Nowadays it is difficult to find someone that has never used Wi-Fi. This wireless technology is pretty much everywhere, from your phone or laptop to your fridge, they may all be connected using Wi-Fi. Beyond the technicalities, the main benefits of Wi-Fi are its high data rates, especially in the last updates of the standard, its industry grade security features and its coverage when compared to Bluetooth.

Making IoT in healthcare work

Similar to Bluetooth, Wi-Fi requires an intermediate device to reach the internet. However, unlike Bluetooth, most people already have Wi-Fi at home which simplifies the entire connectivity process. This functionality is normally delivered by your internet operator and enables, for example, that a wireless wearable ECG monitor can be worn at home to transmit patient’s vital signs to a health center to monitor chronic conditions without the need for physical visits.

When it comes down to the disadvantages, Wi-Fi requires the user to connect the wireless device to the network, similar to Bluetooth. This process can be cumbersome and not straightforward for all users, especially the elderly population. In addition, if your health connected product is battery powered, Wi-Fi is probably not the best choice. Although with the right expertise it can be tuned to perform as good as Bluetooth.

Cellular IoT for emergency devices or chronic care

If there is one wireless technology used all around the world, it is cellular. In general, cellular refers to 2G, 3G, 4G and also the upcoming 5G. These cellular technologies are used by our smartphones. As part of these cellular technologies, there is a new subset normally referred as Cellular IoT or, in other words, LTE-M and NB-IoT. Both technologies reuse, to some extent, the existing cellular infrastructure, enabling a broad range of new use cases for IoT. The main asset of these technologies is its coverage, no matter where your users are – at home, in a hospital, in a different city or country – they will have connectivity, unlike with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. It goes without saying that cellular products will not be able to connect to the internet in the regions where cellular is not available.

While Wi-Fi and Bluetooth require human interaction to connect a device, Cellular IoT is easier to operate. It is the most plug and play technology of all on the user side. This enhanced usability requires careful engineering work to ensure the connectivity with the carriers where your product will be launched. This is why the hardware and operational costs involved with Cellular IoT may be more expensive than Wi-Fi and Bluetooth at first sight. However, when you factor in the end-to-end cost and customer facing complexity of other systems, Cellular IoT can be the best and most reliable option.

Some of the scenarios where Cellular IoT can really stand out are continuous remote monitoring or real-time acute and chronic care. These use cases require a simple, plug and play, ubiquitous solution and this can all be delivered by Cellular IoT.

Choosing the right wireless connectivity technology

Choosing the right wireless connectivity technology requires a specific level of expertise in certain areas. You should be versed in the different wireless protocols as well as with embedded programming. You should also have experience designing your end-to-end architecture to the cloud. Your cloud should be compliant with specific medical regulations such as HIPAA.

Wi-Fi technology

Working with a supplier that has experience in end-to-end connected product development can relieve you from the burden of individually coordinating all of the components and suppliers needed to create your connected medical device. For example, by using a Wi-Fi Module Reference Design you can simplify the process of connecting your product to the cloud. This design provides a technical blueprint to integrate your product with the Philips HealthSuite Digital Platform cloud, software platform and firmware and Wi-Fi chip

Learn more about our IoT in healthcare expertise