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Successful Medical IoT Requires Cellular Connections

Healthcare organizations struggle with deploying medical IoT devices because cellular antennas are not included in device design making it difficult to pass required certifications.

Medical IoT devices are challenged by cellular antennas.

Source: Thinkstock

- The healthcare industry is rapidly adopting medical Internet of Things (IoT) devices to connect, but often runs into challenges when it comes to device design conflicting with the radio frequency (RF) signals.

“The biggest challenge for IoT in healthcare from an antenna and RF perspective is device shape,” Taoglas Co-Founder and Co-CEO Dermot O’Shea told HITInfrastructure.com. “Medical device companies have a device that’s already a particular shape and size. Trying to retrofit an antenna into a medical device is difficult.”

Most healthcare organizations use cellular connections over WiFi because it’s more reliable and allows the devices to be truly mobile. Each medical IoT device has an antenna that connects the device to the healthcare network.

“Most organizations use cellular because it’s the only reliable way to really communicate with the devices,” O’Shea explained. “If you’re only using WiFi then you’re relying on the user, patient or caregiver to do all the WiFi connectivity in terms of selecting the WiFi network and putting in the password.” 

“Cellular is more robust in an environment,” he continued. “It’s never a problem if too many people are using cellular to log onto the network like it is with WiFi. That’s often the problem in a hospital, there’s too many people using the network at the same time and it slows down the network. “

The cellular antenna is the link to network connectivity and converts electrical signal into radio waves, which is why it’s critical for connected medical devices to have efficient antennas. A good antenna makes all the difference, especially when it comes to fringe areas or areas with bad signals. This is vital to mHealth and telehealth programs that provide remote care in rural areas. 

Power consumption is another key reason an efficient antenna is necessary to medical IoT devices.

“If the antenna is not efficient, the device is working harder to maintain or get that connectivity,” said O’Shea. “The less efficient the antenna is the more power the device will consume.”

IoT devices are important to healthcare because they save organizations money. However, organizations can only save money using IoT device if they communicate with the network correctly and efficiently.

“It’s been shown that medical IoT devices save a lot of money because they get people out of the hospital,” O’Shea explained. “If IoT devices can diagnose people in advance then that saves huge costs. We can see nothing but benefits from medical devices being connected. Working with medical device companies brings a much larger delta of savings and benefits than any other vertical.”

Remote management and care of connected medical devices is also a large benefit of IoT device deployment.

“Often medical device units may not be working for the patients because they are being misused,” said O’Shea. “If misuse can be diagnosed remotely it saved huge costs and gets the patient connected quicker. For example, a sleep apnea device can change a patient’s life so using it correctly is very important.”

“It’s not just the patient monitoring element of it, it’s also beneficial for the equipment providers,” he continued. “They can better remotely diagnose issues with medical equipment. In the past, they would have to send a technician out which is very costly. Often there’s very simple things the user has done like not installing something correctly or not connecting the device properly.”

While there are many benefits to healthcare IoT devices, organizations often face challenges in the design and testing phases of medical device development because they may lack awareness of the antenna and its necessary certifications.

“For example, there’s a lot of high powered electronics inside a defibrillator,” O’Shea explained. “There’s a lot of mechanisms in place that create a lot of RF noise and there’s nothing you can do to change that, it’s the nature of a defibrillator. When you go to cellular or any wireless technology that becomes very challenging.”

Connected medical device need to meet certain certifications and a certain level of performance. Each device is tested on how well it sends data back to the network and how well it receives data. The devices need to be tested on how weak a signal they can give off while still being connected.

“A smartphone is a rectangular shape which is always optimal for RF performance,” O’Shea noted. “It’s based around putting it inside the ideal environment in a test chamber and testing it, not beside high power electronics like you would get in a defibrillator or sleep apnea device. This makes the environments completely different and with different antenna requirements.”

Organizations can lose time and money if they try and retrofit antennas into an already built medical device. Medical device companies need to incorporate antennas during the design process to ensure that the device will meet certifications when tested.

“Each medical IoT antenna really needs to be custom fit for a medical device in order to be successful because every medical device is so different,” O’Shea stated. “An insulin pump is completely different from a defibrillator, which is completely different from a sleep apnea machine. They’re all totally different shapes and sizes than any other devices.”

“A lot of other IoT verticals like telematics, automotive applications or other remote monitoring devices have similar form factors,” he continued. “It’s a rectangular black box about the same size as a cell phone. That never happens in the medical device industry. They always need something custom.”

Healthcare organizations often underestimate the complexity of integrating wireless into a medical device and run into problems. O’Shea advised that organizations and medical device companies open up lines of communication among the vendors involved in the design process.

“Partner with the vendors that are available to in the IoT space starting with the carrier,” O’Shea pointed out. “Talk to the antenna and RF solution providers, particularly ones that do custom designs along with providing the antenna. Communicate with vendors that also have the in-house capabilities to do all the tests to make sure the medical device will pass certification.”

Every medical IoT device is different, whether it’s put on a bedside table, going into a hospital, or worn on a patient’s body. Those factors dictate what tests need to be done. Organizations need to know what tests are required at the very beginning of the design process so those elements can be incorporated into the design parameters.

The antennas are the key to the medical IoT devices working correctly. Advanced antennas need to be incorporated into medical devices early so organizations get the most out of the time money they put into the development of the devices.