When it comes to staying healthy, you may be used to waiting until your upcoming annual physical or check-in with a specialist to glean new information about the state of your body. At your doctor’s office, notes are added to your chart about your health status as you’re prodded with various pieces of equipment such as scales, thermometers, blood pressure monitors, stethoscopes, and more. Engineers are imagining ways for patients to get all these vitals without going to the doctor.
We’re getting closer to this reality. From portable medical devices to clinical and hospital equipment, emerging smart technology is enhancing the way we collect, communicate, and analyze patient data. Especially as geriatric and medically underserved populations increase, the demand for technology adoption in the healthcare sector is rising and was particularly intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. As demonstrated in a program started by Mercy Medical Group partnered with Dignity Health and Medtronic, remote patient monitoring improved care, cut costs, and reduced hospitalization by 76 percent for COVID-positive patients. Connected healthcare can lead to better patient outcomes, and intelligent, secure devices are key to making healthcare more accessible to all. 1
Smart Health Is More Than Fitness Trackers
Avid smart device consumers may know about all the latest wearables, trackers, and apps from their favorite brands that promise to monitor everything from fitness, heart rate, and sleep. But smart fitness trackers are healthcare devices, not medical devices. Medical devices need to be more accurate and reliable and ensure repeatable measurements, compared to ordinary fitness trackers. Smart health technology has much more untapped potential to upend our lifestyles and the healthcare sector — and wireless connectivity at the edge will help spur this revolution.
Currently, many smart devices connect to the cloud to store and process data, and transferring this data results in longer latency and the potential for increased security threats. For medical devices used in lifesaving scenarios, every second of response time counts, which heightens the importance and benefits for the health and medical sectors. With edge processing, data is stored and analyzed where it is generated — on the physical device instead of the cloud. The concept of integrating artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) capabilities at the edge can help devices deliver actionable results faster as well. Processing data on the physical device by design also offers many security and privacy benefits, which is especially important when it comes to products being HIPAA compliant and protecting sensitive patient data. More than ever, patients are interested in who can access and who has a vested interest in their data. In most cases, edge processing allows raw, personal, and identifying data to remain on the local device, and only the most relevant or specified data is sent to approved-third parties, if needed.
Edge devices can also be engineered to optimize low-power consumption, ensuring that patients and professionals get the most out of their devices for as long as possible without the need for frequent battery replacements.
Better Data Boosts Preventative Care
Improving the healthcare system as a whole means keeping people from getting sick in the first place. Especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, the medical community is increasingly focusing its attention on preventative care and managing ongoing conditions more effectively, which in many cases starts with home-based virtual care and portable medical devices.
In the past, for example, diabetic patients had to go to a doctor or nurse practitioner regularly to have their glucose tested. About 20 years ago, portable, continuous glucose monitors were approved by the FDA so patients could monitor vitals on their own. In recent times, we’ve seen these devices become more compact, affordable, and smarter to provide faster, more accurate readings. Adding edge capabilities to devices like glucose monitors will go a step further to narrow the gap between condition monitoring and therapy delivery. For instance, a continuous glucose monitor with technically advanced sensors may be able to collect more personalized, real-time data, learn from changes in an individual’s body, and send data directly to insulin pumps to deliver insulin when needed.
In some cases, condition monitoring data not only informs the patient through an interface but can be connected with low-power connectivity protocols to be easily shared with a provider for further diagnosis. Currently, continuous glucose monitors are evolving to be more disposable and reusable — some with an expected life span of 30 days or less — making drug delivery easier and cheaper. Disposable injection pens, which have traditionally been purely mechanical with no electronics, are now being embedded with near-field communications (NFC) tags on the cartridge. The NFC tag can forward information about the status of a drug to a gateway, like a smartphone, to deliver drugs, including insulin when needed.
This level of advancement with edge computing bridges the gap between wearable IoT healthcare devices and the greater healthcare systems. Making sure that data is transferred securely between devices and other applications is critical, and this assurance will lead to more edge devices being embraced by the medical community.
The Evolution Is Coming Fast
The adoption of new technology in the glucose monitoring arena rapidly grew the market, and more devices became accessible to more people, especially as the cost for these devices decreased over time. We’re seeing other types of medical device companies also race to meet consumer demands for more user-friendly, cost-effective, easy-to-set-up, and flexible healthcare technology. Previously immune to intense time-to-market pressures, medical device designers are now experiencing development cycles more akin to their consumer market peers. Time-to-market cycles that were once two to three years in the medical market are now being condensed to six to nine months much like consumer electronic cycles. With medical devices, certain certifications might still need to be attained before reaching store shelves, adding even more pressure to the timeline.
Trusted suppliers such as NXP, for example, are providing designers with the building blocks to create more innovative, secure, and reliable medical IoT applications. Comprehensive portfolio of microcontroller units (MCUs) and processors are distributed worldwide with long-term part availability ranging up to 10–15 years. It is important that suppliers ensure the highest levels of security for every component to meet evolving customer needs and make it possible for personal-use medical devices and professional equipment to support excellent quality of care and privacy.
Many of these devices can remain in use for years when integrated with edge devices such as NXP’s low-power connectivity solutions that include Bluetooth® Smart/Bluetooth Low Energy SoCs and NXP NTAG® family of connected NFC tags. Connected NFC tags provide tap-and-go connectivity and easily link to the cloud without an external power source due to their energy harvesting features.
Toward a Healthier Society
We’re just at the cusp of seeing how edge processing solutions can make medical devices more intelligent and enhance daily life. Scales can do more than just weigh us, they can assess our total body composition, such as water and muscle mass, and identify important trends over time to help us make smarter lifestyle choices. Smart inhalers can send notifications to our phones to remind us we haven’t taken our medicine for the day. Smart blisters, or medicine packaging with sensors on each individual pill, can even alert us when loved ones are or are not complying to their regimens via an NFC tag sending a reminder to a smartphone. Skin patches embedded with NFC tags can measure temperatures and detect fevers, which could be an indicator for diseases like the flu or COVID-19, and then a smartphone can forward this information to the proper parties.
Continuous monitoring devices, like smart patches, watches, and rings, are being packed with more capabilities in smaller packages than ever before. Especially as medical manufacturers increasingly integrate edge processing into devices and think more intentionally about the design and components of the local environment, we’ll continue to see more miniaturization. For example, cardiac monitors are getting smaller and more implantable.
When devices are so noninvasive that patients barely have to think about them, they can enhance data collection and instantly detect changes to share with physicians and caregivers, enabling faster diagnosis and improving decision-making. 2
Connected health benefits can extend to every generation of a family, and smart health technology is making the concept of “aging in place” much more feasible. According to AARP, nearly 77 percent of adults 50 and older want to remain in their homes for the long term. Devices that can accurately track an elderly person’s health status and enable remote monitoring support elderly independence in the home. 3
There is no doubt that new technologies are making it easier to be health conscious. Patients and providers will be more eager to embrace these technologies if they know that devices are equipped by design to protect privacy. Empowering medical IoT devices with edge processing, as a complement to cloud computing, empowers us all to take control of our health and create a healthier society.
- Resources and Results Telehealth Outcomes.
- “BIOTRONIK Announces Collaboration with AliveCor as First in a Series of Strategic Partnerships to Disrupt Cardiac Digital Health with AI-Enabled Solutions,” Biotronik, Sept. 8, 2022.
- “Despite Pandemic, Percentage of Older Adults Who Want to Age in Place Stays Steady,” AARP.
This article was written by Robert Thompson, Director of Edge Processing Ecosystem, NXP, Austin, TX. For more information, visit here .