Varied stakeholders in healthcare around the world increasingly share and recognize a requirement for standards-based interoperability.

Fig. 1 – IEEE Standards help enable medical devices.
Communication among disparate devices, systems, and applications demands global interoperability standards. The ability for multi-vendor personal health and medical devices and proprietary interfaces to seamlessly exchange data is absolutely essential to the gathering vision of “e-health” around the world. Without a standards-based environment of end-to-end interoperability, fragmented communications would introduce blind spots in wellness monitoring, preventive care, and telemedicine.

The good news is that the necessary framework of interoperability standards is gathering form. Recent standards in areas such as blood-pressure monitoring, chronic-disease management, and three-dimensional (3D) modeling in medical applications exemplify the global e-health industry’s determination to improve multi-vendor interoperability, cost efficiency, and ease of use.

The E-Health Vision

A vision of e-health has taken shape around the world, and its proponents see in it the opportunity to bring about a host of key transformations—to better care for the world’s rapidly aging populations, to realize breakthrough cost efficiencies throughout the processes of healthcare delivery, to evolve from crisis-driven, responsive care to a more proactive posture of preventive care and wellness monitoring, and more.

In the developing e-health scenario, unprecedented volumes and types of more accurate data on patients and their environments—data that is both quantitative and qualitative, data that is sometimes processed and analyzed in real time—are securely and seamlessly exchanged through multi-layered networks of care. What capabilities could be unleashed?

  • It could equip healthcare providers to more closely partner with their patients in preventive and post-operative care and in monitoring and management of chronic diseases.
  • It could equip healthcare providers to more cost-efficiently serve the world’s remote, traditionally under-served communities.
  • It could equip healthcare providers to more quickly and precisely identify and tamp down disease outbreaks and undertake preventive services across populations.

Standards-based interoperability of multi-vendor technologies is one of the critical underpinning elements of e-health. Diverse devices must “speak the same language” if data is to be exchanged seamlessly across the networks that interlink patients, healthcare providers, public-safety agencies, etc.

The importance of such interoperability is increasingly recognized among diverse players across the e-health landscape. For example, the FDA now includes interoperability-related standards in its guidance to the healthcare industry. A March 2013 report to the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health from the West Health Institute concluded that, in the United States, standards-based interoperability among medical devices “could be a source of more than $30 billion a year in savings and improve patient care and safety.”

Managing Chronic Disease

Globally scoped standards help advance the multi-vendor interoperability on which e-health and all of its most promising benefits are predicated.

IEEE 11073 standards, for example, are designed to enable plug-and-play, seamless communications among various e-health devices and other healthcare systems and compute engines such as cell phones, personal computers, personal health appliances, and set-top boxes (See Figure 1).

Adoption of interoperability standards, such as those in the IEEE 11073 family, are intended ultimately to help individuals with chronic diseases like asthma, diabetes, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, high blood pressure, stroke, and atrial fibrillation lead more active, independent, and longer lives.

For example, one of the more recently approved standards in the family—IEEE 11073-10419-2015 “IEEE Standard for Health informatics - Personal health device communication - Device specialization - Insulin pump” (http://standards.ieee.org/findstds/standard/11073-10419-2015.html)—defines a common core of communication functionality for personal telehealth insulin pump devices. Common terminologies, information models, application protocols, term codes, formats, and behaviors are proposed to improve interoperability among the devices used by diabetics.

Standards like IEEE 11073-10419 could potentially help eliminate the need for many of the customary, face-to-face appointments with care providers that patients must undertake today and replace them, instead, with more cost-efficient online interactions. Plus, with multi-vendor personal health devices able to feed information to healthcare providers via standards-based, interoperable communications, healthcare providers gain a more complete understanding of a patient’s ongoing condition—as opposed to having to base care decisions strictly on the information collected during isolated visits to doctor’s offices and other healthcare facilities.