Wireless Patient Monitors – a genre of medical devices that bring together the best of two worlds, wireless and medical technology. The arena of healthcare has been under a transformational phase for a few years now after a lull wherein research took the back seat and only development was given due concern in areas such as patient monitoring. A ‘sclerosed’ market was the outcome with the similar products crowding the market and the market space not growing that much either. However, the needs of the industry to survive meant more investment in areas that would perhaps remodel the healthcare delivery structure as we see today. Medical equipment manufacturers rightly identified that any technology that would alleviate costs would be embraced almost immediately, by the budget strapped healthcare delivery systems in Europe. A technology wave that took the area of communications by storm seemed to have more than obvious benefits in the area of healthcare and culminating as wireless healthcare products.
Wire Free Environment: Cutting Clutter and Costs
Wireless is a vintage concept if spoken in the context of communication technology and has been used in hospitals for over 30 years. There has been large-scale use of radio communications in ambulances and emergency care to communicate the patient condition. If closely observed the progression of wireless technologies into healthcare is a natural culmination. The purpose of medical services is to bring patients back to the normal world, to make them ‘up and running’. Hospitals generally demarcate the care areas depending on levels of acuity, and the level of patient monitoring depends on various medically defined guidelines. Critical care as per textbook definitions is an area equipped with advanced medical equipment in order to provide highly specialised medical care. The incumbents are patients who have clinical conditions that are life threatening or those who need constant care and monitoring. Critical care areas are emerging to be the most expensive areas in the hospital with a per day cost incurred to the tune of about $1500-$2500 per day. The need to free these areas and move patients to less expensive step down or intermediate care areas for patients who have come clear of the danger zone is what healthcare authorities are aiming to do.
The need for constant monitoring of patient’s vital parameters led to them being tied down to the bed as most monitoring equipment were wired and had connections to the central monitoring station through a wired network. In addition to the clutter, the costs that were incurred in laying cables were huge. This led to systems vendors thinking up of making patient monitoring systems that were less cumbersome to handle and that could somehow integrate with the existing infrastructure of the hospital without virtually rebuilding the entire hospital infrastructure by relaying cables and wires. The concept of wireless monitoring took off from there. The use of wireless communication within the hospital in the form of tablet PC’s, laptops and PDA’s, was a seed for the growth of patient monitoring equipment that could be carted around and which could communicate with the central monitoring station from any corner of the hospital. The fact that there is an already existing wireless network in hospitals provides huge opportunities for vendors in the wireless patient monitoring space. Yet there are huge hurdles that need to be overcome in order to translate the opportunity to revenues
Wireless Healthcare: Tailoring the ‘Right Fit’
The requirement for higher data rates makes the patient-monitoring network more robust and able to withstand high data transfer rates and loads as these would be used to transfer the vital signs data of more than 100 patients at any given time. There are several frequency bands that are being use for the purpose of medical data transmission such as the industrial scientific and medical bands (ISM bands) which is more popular in Europe. This works typically in the 2.4 Ghz range for medical transmission and is protected to prevent interference from other high signals such as high definition television etc. Unlike in the U.S., Europe is yet to witness a standardised approach in the use of medical frequencies for patient monitoring applications. The Scandinavian countries are perhaps among those countries which have a frequency range set-aside for patient monitoring applications almost in line with the U.S. FCC ruling. Network standards to be used for patient monitoring data is also not harmonised throughout Europe.Though there seems to be a major shift towards the use of 802.11b/g in Europe it remains to see if this will emerge as a standard for all device manufacturers. Patient monitoring equipment vendors have rightly identified the opportunity but these issues need to be addressed if the market needs to see tremendous growth opportunities.
Developments in technology will definitely face some teething problems and wireless patient monitoring is going through the same phase. The possibility of having a hospital wide wireless network to be able to integrate with the patient monitoring network (as exemplified by Draeger Medical) presents opportunities to create a ‘less wire’ hospital environment. Growth opportunities are boundless for this area with ground breaking developments in wireless networking and mobile communications, patient monitoring could transgress the walls of the hospital and move into the more comfortable homecare zone and this would be the ideal situation for Europe in the future.
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