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Going wireless

New technologies could improve patient care, cut costs

Wireless health care is on the rise, and with continued technological advancements and adherence to a few guiding principles, it could lead to better quality of life for patients, reduced hospital costs and earlier detection of medical problems, panelists said during a Feb. 4 discussion at West 2010.

The idea of wireless health care is not new, but it is gaining momentum in private and public realms.

"Sensors, low-power (capabilities) and wireless connectivity makes it a very exciting time to use technology to create wireless health solutions," said Mehran Mehregany, chief of engineering research for West Wireless Health Institute, who participated on the panel that was part of a Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) and Connect track during the West 2010 conference.

Mehregany said today's technology, such as smart phones with numerous sensors and relatively high computing power, and the convergence of compatible technologies, make this the prime time to look at wireless health care options.

The ability now exists to create sensor-filled patches, chairs and other equipment to obtain patient information and provide doctors with information necessary for developing a treatment plan.

Darrel Drinan, founder, president and CEO of PhiloMetron, discussed two adhesive-bandage type products that use several sensors and computing technology to gather information from patients. One monitors for dehydration while the other monitors how many calories are consumed and burned.

In a wireless health care setting, tools like these would be available to electronically gather a variety of information from patients to help diagnose or monitor problems from a remote location.

Cost to the health care systems would drop by allowing patients with chronic illnesses to monitor their conditions from home, Mehregany said. Only when hospital-based treatment was necessary would they be admitted.

Jeffrey "Jay" Cuttino, health systems infrastructure technical and operations deputy for SPAWAR Systems Center (SSC) Atlantic, said a key benefit from a provider and health care system perspective is that wireless networks expedite the care process and ultimately eliminate some labor expenses by providing access to electronic health information.

Patients also win in a wireless health care system.

Mehregany said the ability to carry out diagnostics on patients anytime, anywhere, would improve the patient's quality of life. And it brings health care to those living in remote areas who might not have easy access to doctors, he said.

"It would not be unreasonable to mail a kit to a patient in a remote area, the patient uses it, and we receive the information needed for diagnosis," he said.

But beyond collecting data, Drinan said there is a need for systems that analyze a patient's data as well.

"We think the largest opportunities in health care are diagnostics or therapies tied to an analytic engine that does summarization of that data," Drinan said. "Doctors don't want that data. You need to figure out how to summarize that in a way a clinician will accept (it)."

In less than three years, attitudes have changed and wireless has become a desirable asset. William "Skipper" McCreight Jr., health systems infrastructure technical and operations manager for SSC Atlantic, said wireless was considered a bad word when he started working on a Department of Defense wireless system two and a half years ago.

But today, the wireless concept is understood, accepted and even demanded.

"Wi-Fi is relatively well understood," he said. "You see something about Wi-Fi on every Web page you click. People know a little about it. It's very easy to see what the newest Wi-Fi application is.

"Our CIOs and doctors see that, and they want it now. Unfortunately, because information assurance is so important, it takes time."

The military health care system is especially strict on information assurance measures. Networks carrying wireless capabilities and each wireless asset must be secure and up to Department of Defense standards.

There also is an issue of finding equipment compatible on the network, McCreight said. The new networks for military health care, he said, will be designed to accommodate a variety of equipment and requirements not currently in use.

He said future applications that operate in low-bandwidth environments would be desirable.

Drinan also offered tips for future wireless tools. He said it is important to create a tool that solves a problem or enhances an existing process. Too often, he said, a problem is defined with a solution already in mind instead of the other way around.

He also suggests that the needed processes exist, and the key is to integrate and combine those processes in new ways.

"There is no single silver bullet left out there," he said.

"What you're going to have to do is you're going to have to integrate multiple devices in a complex platform and validate it for large populations to detect different conditions."

At least for now, wireless technology brings benefits to the health care system, but it is not a replacement for existing systems. Health care remains a hybrid, drawing on the best options from the wired and wireless worlds.

"The wireless network is just ... to allow you to extend the boundaries of the wired network," Cuttino said. "It's not to replace the wired network. That's something we're dealing with now, getting people to understand that."

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