Wireless connectivity is already fairly ubiquitous, but with ever more devices getting hooked up to the net, will the final frontier become the human body?
According to Iboun Sylla, business development manager at Texas Instrument’s wireless medical unit, Body Area Networks (BAN) will soon be the norm, turning humans into walking hotspots.
Of course, hooking ourselves up to the grid on such an personal level isn’t to allow others to check emails as we walk past, but to transmit a host of biometric data directly from our bodies to our doctors in real-time.
The concept of telehealth is not a new one. As telecommunications technologies and wearable or embeddable sensors become more advanced, however, the possibilities of beaming our blood pressure, glucose levels, temperature, weight, heart rate and more over to a health professional for monitoring becomes not just easy, but worthwhile.
Consider the fact that by 2019, 32 percent more people in the US will be over 65 years old, while in2025 1.2 billion people worldwide will be over 50 years old. Our population is aging fast, and the pressure this would put on our existing healthcare model would be unbearable.
U.S. healthcare spending is already more than 17 percent of GDP and those costs are expected to grow from $2.5 trillion in 2009 to $4.5 trillion in 2019.
Research shows, however, that wearable devices could significantly cut down on healthcare costs by adding to preventative care and cutting down on unnecessary visits to a physician.
Indeed it’s believed remote monitoring of individuals with chronic conditions could result in a 35-56 percent reduction in mortality, a 47 percent reduction in risk of hospitalization, six day reduction in length of hospital admissions and 65 percent reduction in office visits. In addition, remote monitoring could provide a 40-64 percent reduction in Physician time for checks and a 63 percent reduction in transport costs.
While the benefits of telemonitoring may be clear, however, business models and interoperability are still massive hurdles the industry needs to overcome in order to turn body connectivity into a reality.
Organizations like the Continua health alliance are gathering various partners into a consortium, but there is still the question of which wireless technologies are best suited to the purpose, with Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), ANT, Zigbee, GPRS, EDGE, GSM and Ethernet all under the microscope.
Of course the uses for BAN are almost as diverse as the choices for which technology to use, with everything from cardiac implants to wireless pacemakers, blood glucose monitors, implantable insulin pumps and pill cameras under development, not to mention an entire industry of health fitness monitoring.
Indeed, the current definition for a body area network is “a communications technology that is optimized for low power consumption and operates in, on or around the human body to enable a variety of applications including medical, consumer electronics and personal entertainment.”
Speaking at TI’s technology day in San Jose last week, Sylla noted that the basic requirements for any such BAN would have to include criteria such as a range of equal of over three meters, data rates of 100kbs – Mbps, peak power consumption of under 3mA and the ability to operate in multiple frequency bands.
It also needs to be robust in noisy and interference-limited environments and able to coexist with legacy devices and primary users of spectrum.
On the usage side, anything to do with BAN must be easy to set up, with short access times, efficient power management, have strong security, include support for alarms and continuous and aperiodic data.
Currently, even technologies like Zigbee and Bluetooth are not considered low power enough, with Bluetooth optimized for voice links and ZigBee optimized for industrial sensors and smart grids. Meanwhile, Wi-Fi is optimized for data networks while BLE or ANT can be used but the peak current is still high.
That leaves the industry with the option to modify existing standards to support medical BAN applications but existing standards already carry significant overhead and were designed with other applications in mind.
In addition, none of the existing standards meet the peak-power consumption requirements, power savings modes are not optimized and various bits and pieces of security in existing standards are broken.
But while the thought of embedding wireless into our person may be a little creepy, it’s clear that the medical industry is highly focused on achieving it to alleviate some of the challenges it faces - sooner rather than later. It’s just that there’s still a long way to go before digital human connectivity becomes a standard reality.