Bluetooth technology continues to impact our lives every day. The popularity of wearables devices such as fitness bands, smartwatches, and even smart clothing has dominated the wearable technology market for years. According to a recent report, the global wearable technology market size was valued at approximately $40.65 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.8% from 2021 to 2028. But Bluetooth isn’t just for personal use. Today’s medical facilities are using Bluetooth for a variety of applications. While different wireless technologies have been used for decades in the healthcare industry, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is becoming more prevalent. This blog will focus on why Bluetooth is becoming the preferred wireless technology for use in the healthcare industry, the different applications as well as the benefits for both hospitals and patients.
Bluetooth offers many advantages over other wireless connectivity solutions. First, Bluetooth’s low power and low energy use make it an ideal and simple choice for different types of medical equipment being used today such as blood glucose, blood pressure and respiratory rate monitors. The vast majority of these medical devices operate on a single tiny battery. Bluetooth allows such medical devices to operate for years thanks to its lower power consumption. Second, Bluetooth is highly immune to interference. The technology operates on the 2.4Ghz frequency band and can coexist with other RF technologies such as Wi-Fi and Zigbee. Bluetooth uses a technique called adaptive frequency hopping which means that it reduces interference by adapting the hop sequence to avoid channels in use by other devices operating in the same ISM band. Channels that are ‘noisy’ and/or ‘busy’ are tracked and avoided when sending packets to help avoid packet error or loss. In a busy hospital environment, data transmission must be continuous, especially if medical staff is monitoring a patient’s condition and needs real-time data. Last, the government-grade security features of Bluetooth make it an ideal technology for hospitals. Bluetooth adheres to U.S. federal security regulations to ensure that all Bluetooth devices are capable of meeting or exceeding strict government security standards. The encryption in BLE is based on 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) which meets both NIST and FIPS compliance. This provides the flexibility for any medical device manufacturer to deliver the best security and user experience for any given implementation.
Different use cases of Bluetooth for healthcare
Today’s hospitals and clinics are equipped with costly equipment to effectively treat patients with all types of conditions. In addition, the cost to hire and retain medical staff adds to their operational expenses. If healthcare can use those human and physical resources more efficiently, then there’s great potential for significant cost savings, particularly by reducing expenditure on routine tasks. This is where BLE becomes a very useful technology in that process. Let’s explore some of the different applications and their benefits:
a.) In-home health monitoring
The IoT has made it easier than ever to improve patient care and reduce costs for patients and healthcare facilities. Medical devices such as blood pressure and blood glucose monitors, weight scales, and heart rate monitors can measure key vital signs, track one’s health and send important notifications to patients and caregivers. BLE makes this possible with its low power and long-range capabilities. For instance, by using Bluetooth’s long-range communication, a patient can connect their blood pressure monitor to their smartphone which then securely sends their data over the internet to their primary caregiver for further analysis. Patients are empowered to monitor their own health without having to leave the comfort of their home. In-home health monitoring using BLE has made healthcare more affordable and accessible for many people.
b.) Vital Sign Monitoring
Wearable devices are being used for continuous patient monitoring in hospitals to monitor a patient’s key vital signs. Oftentimes, most patients will have had their vital signs measured by a nurse before a doctor sees them. Vital signs are termed ‘vital’ as they influence clinical-decision making, but such monitoring is expensive and even inaccurate at times.Traditional methods of vital sign monitoring such as routinely taking one’s temperature orally are not resource-efficient and can be prone to manual error. Continuous vital sign monitoring using wireless medical devices not only reduces costs but medical staff can deliver better quality of care to more patients. Continuous vital sign monitoring isn’t just for in-hospital use, patients can monitor their health at home and have their data securely sent to their care provider for further analysis. Another use case is treating patients in an ambulance on the way to a hospital. For example, a BLE defibrillator can be used to send real-time information about the patient’s status to a gateway equipped inside the vehicle. The data can be automatically transferred to the manufacturer’s cloud service where physicians have immediate access to this information so they are better prepared to treat the patient when they arrive at the ER.
c.) Real-time tracking of inventory, assets and patients
Certain medical inventory products in labs must be stored at an optimal temperature to ensure their safety and effectiveness. Take for example blood banks. Storing blood at a specific temperature is essential to ensure it’s safe for patient use. Traditional methods of manually recording blood banks can be prone to human error. Frequent opening and closing of a refrigerator where the blood is stored can negatively affect the optimal temperature. Now, BLE sensors are being used to remotely track temperature. Tiny sensors are attached to each blood bag to continuously monitor the temperature. Data is then sent to a smartphone or gateway. BLE tags are also being used in a clinical setting to track, monitor and manage key assets in real-time for improved asset allocation and efficiency. Some key assets include ventilators for critical care, machinery for ultrasound diagnostics, infusion pumps, and wheelchairs to name a few. A tag is assigned to each of the assets being monitored, which communicates their identity and positional information using the hospital’s existing wireless infrastructure. BLE beacons are another example. A beacon network inside a hospital can help reduce administrative costs by cutting the labor required. For instance, beacons are excellent indoor navigation devices. When a patient or visitor is lost, they can use an app installed on their phone for directions without having to ask medical staff. Moreover, a beacon can broadcast available slots for appointments. A beacon installed in a physician’s office can alert them of an upcoming appointment or patient request.
The above are just a few applications that demonstrate the power of Bluetooth technology in healthcare and with continued advancements in IoT, we can expect to see new and innovative applications for diagnostic and remote patient monitoring in healthcare facilities, as well as new opportunities for patient care in the home environment.