Advances in high-tech medicine offer major benefits to patients but threaten ever higher EMR exposure

'New analysis from Frost & Sullivan, European Market for Wireless Patient Monitoring Devices, finds that the market earned revenues of $89.9 million in 2008 and estimates this to reach $176.9 million in 2015. The following market sectors are covered in the research: wireless assisted living devices, wireless vital signs measurement devices and portable personal health (wellness) devices.'

In the near future in-body medical devices such as pacemakers will be able to use radio frequency technology to improve healthcare for patients. A low-powered, two-way wireless communications system linking an in-body device to a monitoring system can provide up-to-the minute patient data to allow doctors to adjust treatment as soon as it is needed. Devices will read data every night when the patient is asleep and send reports to the physician at the hospital, via the telephone system or Internet.

Antennas are vital to the operation of these systems. They need to be small, light, high performing but low-powered, have limited radiation directed at the wearer and be built into the implant. They also need to be made of a material that is biocompatible as well as a good electrical performer. All technically difficult to achieve.
However, NPL , the UK's National Measurement Institute, has developed an implantable Radio Frequency Identification tag made up of a PIFA antenna type that has been optimised to operate, and appears to do so, whilst embedded in an artificially fabricated three-layer structure representative of skin, fat and muscle.

Excellent, no doubt, for monitoring your heart rate but not so great for your electrical sensitivity.

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Even worse, over the longer term, would be MBANs or ‘medical body area networks’, wireless sensors placed on (or even under) a patient's skin that provide doctors with real-time information about their patients. An MBAN would help hospitals and healthcare clinics better keep tabs on important health-related information, including a patient's temperature, pulse, blood glucose level, blood pressure and respiratory function. Each sensor would communicate information about the patient's body via short-range wireless signals to a small receiver (either handheld or hooked onto a bed or wheelchair) that would use longer-range wireless signals to share that information with the healthcare facility's centralized computer systems—all without the jumble of wires needed to do this today.

As new sensors are developed, these body area networks might even turn into the human equivalent of General Motors OnStar vehicle maintenance services that drivers use to proactively inform them of the need for maintenance and to call for help when lost or in an accident.

Before this can happen, a lot of work needs to be done developing low-power wireless sensors (that can operate with tiny batteries) and reserving space on the wireless spectrum to ensure this potentially life-critical data has priority status so it can get where it needs to go reliably and securely without interference from other signals or users. Healthcare providers and technology companies in the US are pushing the US Federal Communications Commission to allocate a dedicated piece of the wireless spectrum for secure, reliable transmission of patient data.

If all goes well, look for MBANs to fall into three categories in the near future – those used to monitor a patient's general health, those measuring the health of the elderly, and those used to monitor patients with long-term medical conditions such as Parkinson's disease or epilepsy. As MBAN technology matures, it might also be used to address the needs of the world's aging population and problems with healthcare costs by allowing patients to be monitored remotely (yet unobtrusively) while at home.

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First Published in October 2009

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