In 2022, the number of connected IoT devices surpassed 7 billion, with projections indicating a rise to 22 billion by 2025. As IoT technology matures, healthcare applications are rapidly increasing. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of IoT in healthcare, as the need for remote patient monitoring and decentralized clinical trials increased, and the challenge of rising healthcare costs became more pressing.
IoT in healthcare encompasses a wide range of use cases, including continuous patient monitoring to provide care beyond the hospital, in-home care for the aging population, monitoring recovery and rehabilitation, smart hospital equipment for automated and centralized operations, and smart hospital buildings for improved efficiency and responsiveness for healthcare professionals and patients.
Medical devices need to be carefully designed to meet the needs of medical professionals, patients, and regulatory bodies. This includes reliable connectivity, compliance with medical device regulations, and futureproofing.
Healthcare providers require medical devices that securely record and transmit vital data and maintain connectivity for extended periods. These devices must also comply with privacy and cybersecurity regulations such as IEC 62304, ISO 13485:2016, Medical Device Regulation 2017/745, GDPR, or NIST Special Publication 1800-30.
Furthermore, these devices must have the capability to securely update software remotely and provide optimal performance over an extended period.
Device Connectivity Technologies
When choosing the appropriate wireless connectivity for IoT devices in healthcare, several key factors should be considered:
- Mobility: Will the IoT device be stationary, such as a hospital instrument, or mobile, such as a wearable device?
- Data transmission requirements: IoT devices can transmit small amounts of data at low rates (such as basic physiological sensors) or large amounts of data (such as medical imaging and MRI devices). It is important to know the approximate data transmission needs of the connected devices.
- Power source: Battery-operated devices have strict power consumption requirements to prolong battery life. It is important to determine if the specific IoT device is connected to an outlet or battery-operated.
- Coverage: The availability and accessibility of wireless technologies in the environment where the device operates plays a crucial role in the selection process. It is important to determine if the device will have consistent Wi-Fi connectivity and/or cellular coverage access.
Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) is a wireless communication standard that falls under the category of low-power wide area networks (LPWANs). It requires small amounts of data, low bandwidth, and long battery life, making it suitable for a wide range of IoT applications. NB-IoT is a radio technology for machine-to-machine communication that is integrated into 5G standards and therefore, accessible wherever cellular coverage is available.
Bluetooth Low Energy
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is a power-efficient variant of Bluetooth personal area network (PAN) technology, designed for internet-connected devices. Introduced in the Bluetooth 4.0 specification, it serves as an alternative to traditional Bluetooth and uses frequency hopping wireless technology in the 2.4 GHz unlicensed radio band to connect nearby devices. BLE has a maximum data rate of 1 Mbps and power consumption of 0.01 to 0.5 watts, which is almost half of traditional Bluetooth.
BLE is intended for small area coverage, typically 30 to 100 meters, and typically within a small building. It has widespread adoption in smartphones, a relatively straightforward development process, and no fees to access the core specifications. However, its limitations include the need for a gateway device to connect end devices to the internet and potential interference with other protocols in the 2.4 GHz spectrum.
IEEE 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6, is the latest standard for wireless local area networks (LANs). It offers improved coverage, capacity, and efficiency without compromising core features such as interoperability, security, and ease of use. Wi-Fi 6 networks can handle dense environments with a large number of devices connected simultaneously. It allows the transmission of patient records, imaging results, and real-time patient monitoring data among healthcare professionals.
Wi-Fi 6 offers advanced capabilities such as increased client devices per access point, efficient use of airtime, and reduced power consumption. Medical devices can stay consistently connected, operate longer on battery power, and provide an improved experience for all users. Wi-Fi 6 also allows for improved data handling, enabling healthcare practitioners’ hospital-wide access to digital data and images from medical imaging systems such as MRI, radiography, and ultrasound. The “target wake time” feature of Wi-Fi 6 increases a device’s sleep time and improves battery life.
Zigbee (IEEE 802.15.4) is a wireless communication standard that is specifically designed for low-rate and low-power communication between devices in a personal area network (PAN). It defines the physical layer and media access control of the network. Zigbee is an open standard that is widely adopted in the industry, it is known for its easy-to-use wireless data solution and provides secure and reliable wireless network architecture.
One of the main benefits of Zigbee is its flexibility in network structure and long battery life support. It also offers easy installation which makes it suitable for a wide range of IoT applications. However, it has some limitations such as short-range communication, high maintenance cost, and lack of a total solution. Additionally, Zigbee is not as secure as other wireless technology like Wi-Fi based systems.
5G cellular networks, commonly used for smartphone connectivity worldwide, offer dependable global access to IoT devices that are designed to be mobile. With its ability to support low and high data rates, 5G is suitable for a wide range of applications. However, it should be noted that 5G service subscriptions can be costly and are typically provided by a built-in network provider.
To connect and manage various IoT devices in a healthcare setting, multiple connectivity technologies must be employed. This may include an overlay architecture utilizing edge computing within the facility, cloud computing for remote device connectivity, and local connectivity through Bluetooth and smartphones as a bridge. The complexity of the architecture will depend on the diversity of wireless technologies used.