Expanding Application of Bluetooth in Healthcare Calls for More Advanced Wireless Networks
Bluetooth-enabled devices are increasingly common in the healthcare sector, but hospitals and other providers must be mindful of the networking complications that come with them.
Experts predict global Internet of Things (IoT) revenues to rise to somewhere between $2 trillion and $11 trillion by 2025. Hoping to capitalize on these bullish projections, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) released the latest iteration of the Bluetooth standard, Bluetooth 5, at the end of last year.
As explained by Bluetooth SIG Executive Director Mark Powell, “Bluetooth 5 will transform the way people experience the IoT by making it something that happens simply and seamlessly around them.” According to Powell’s figures, Bluetooth beacons will account for more than one in three installed IoT devices by 2020.
The nature and scope of the upgrades offered by Bluetooth 5 suggest that Powell’s optimism may be justified, as the new standard takes great strides to rectify some of the problems that have plagued previous iterations of the frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) technology.
For instance, Bluetooth 5 delivers a maximum connectivity range that is four times greater than that of previous models. It also doubles data transfer speeds to faster than 2Mbps and expands overall data broadcasting capacity by a factor of eight. Perhaps most significantly, Bluetooth 5 offers unprecedented connection flexibility, enabling users to build mesh networks out of numerous connected devices. Prior to this development, a standard Bluetooth master device was only capable of supporting seven unique connections at once.
The Value of Bluetooth in the Healthcare Space
These upgrades have made it easier to rely on Bluetooth-enabled devices for critical data transfers in environments like hospitals. From patient telemetry systems and physicians’ smartphones to patient wayfinding apps and smartbeds, the number and diversity of Bluetooth-enabled or potentially Bluetooth-enabled devices showing up in hospitals across the country is rapidly growing.
For example, Ohio-based healthcare network Mercy Health recently adopted a cutting-edge indoor GPS and digital wayfinding app built on Bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacons and handset sensor fusion technology. “We’re always looking to improve the experience of both our patients and visitors,” Mercy Health Central Market President and CEO Pat Davis-Hagens explains. “We launched the app to guide you to the department or room you want to visit, remember where you parked, and help reduce missed or late appointments.”
The tool provides patients and visitors with turn-by-turn indoor navigation, navigation cues, and visual landmark references. It can even make a note of where a visitor has parked and then guide them back to the right spot when they’re ready to leave the facility. Though Mercy Health has yet to do so, a hospital could very easily leverage this same technology to track physician, nurse, and even equipment movement, ensuring that the administrative staff knows where every one of their assets — both human and material — is at all times.
While, on balance, these kinds of applications of Bluetooth 5 stand to improve patient care, hospitals and other large healthcare providers must be sure to account for the potential radio frequency (RF) interference that this proliferation of Bluetooth devices may introduce into their wireless networking environments.
Combatting RF Interference
RF interference is probably the most frequent culprit in service slowdowns and poor performance on large networks like those commonly found at hospitals. This kind of interference occurs when a wireless signal is disrupted by signals broadcast by other devices that are using the same frequency.
Everything from wireless phones, to microwaves, to the latest Bluetooth devices can emit disruptive electromagnetic signals, meaning it’s essential for IT administrators to have a detailed, layered understanding of the environment in which their networks are deployed. While most Bluetooth devices communicate on a frequency that won’t disrupt traditional WiFI or wireless networks, the low energy beacons used by Mercy Health could plague their network connectivity if they aren’t careful to avoid it.
In healthcare, poor WiFi is more than just frustrating — it can seriously hinder critical services and patient care, as well. As such, it is absolutely essential for healthcare IT professionals to engage in extensive radio frequency planning when designing their wirelessnetworks.
Fortunately, networking experts like Turn-key Technologies can help any healthcare provider perform an in-depth wireless site survey in order to gain a deeper understanding of the RF environment in which its network is being deployed. When executed properly, a site survey guarantees that an organization will end up with a network that delivers the coverage and capacity necessary to support the ever-increasing flow of Bluetooth and other IoT devices into today’s healthcare spaces.