Smartphones Spur BLE® Adoption in Medical Devices?

Published on September 24, 2012

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The much anticipated Apple® iPhone 5 made its entrance onto the global scene last week. The public reacted as expected and over 2 million pre orders were taken in the first 24 hours.  The device continued with Apple's product leadership role for Bluetooth® v4.0 in smartphones and will further enhance the prospects for the long term viability of this relatively new low power variant of Bluetooth. Nokia's® initial product announcements for the Nokia 920 and 820 smartphones did not include Bluetooth v4.0 but this week qualification has gone through for these Windows 8 devices to be upgraded to Bluetooth v4.0 for their launch later on this year. This now brings Bluetooth v4.0 (Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE) to another major smartphone operating system in addition to Apple and Android's offerings in various devices.

The greater the availability of BLE in the smartphone market, the greater the potential wireless connectivity options for a variety of medical sensors and peripherals. Classic Bluetooth has increasingly found a home in portable, battery-powered medical peripherals, such as Welch Allyn ProBP3400. By significantly reducing the power consumption of Classic Bluetooth, BLE allows wireless connectivity from a coin cell battery, enabling medical device makers to produce smaller form factor medical peripherals that don't need to be docked regularly to charge batteries.

Both classic Bluetooth and BLE allow for "cutting the cord" from the medical peripheral to its respective gateway device that uploads the patient data to the Cloud or network. In consumer medical devices this gateway is usually a smartphone or tablet device that uses either Wi-Fi or cellular as a backhaul option to get the data out over the wide area. By relying on the globally interoperable wireless interface of Bluetooth v4.0 rather than a cabled interface, medical device makers don't have to worry about proprietary Apple connectors or differing manufacturers' connector interfaces. This issue was highlighted last week by the change in connector on the iPhone 5 from a proprietary 30 pin connector to a new 8 pin connector for cabled connections. (Medical devices that rely on a cable connection to iOS devices have to change their connector or pay Apple  for an adapter cable, currently priced at $29.)

While consumer medical devices tend to interact with smartphones and tablets, medical devices in hospitals are more likely to use Wi-Fi to interact with hospital networks. When the power drain and processing complexity of enterprise-grade Wi-Fi is too much for a battery powered medical device, that device can use BLE or Classic Bluetooth (dependent upon required data rate) to interact with a gateway that uses Wi-Fi to link the device to the hospital network. The gateway can handle the hospital's stringent Wi-Fi security and connectivity requirements, leaving the medical device to focus on its job.