Building Wireless Connectivity for Health Care

By Cindy Atoji

November 4, 2008 | BOSTON—Over the next three years, wireless mobile networks will evolve from today’s technology to next-generation capabilities, with open access allowing the use of any device or application on national bandwidths. But adoption will be slow until a standardized infrastructure is created, instead of every mobile company acting as a little fiefdom.

These were just some of the assessments made by telecommunications executives at a symposium entitled "Wireless and Mobile Services for Connected Health: What's Happening Now?" held in Boston last week, sponsored by the Center for Connected Health. And unless a viable business case is made for wireless—and until disparate industry groups learn to work together—there will be a “gap between what we are technically capable of doing and what we can actually do,” says Robert Schwarzberg, president and CEO of Sensei, a developer of mobile and web-based wellness solutions, including a cell-phone-based application for weight management. “The use of wireless or mobile is new to health, and like anything else, getting people to adopt ends up being the responsibility of us who are trying to find a way to engage them.”

A key platform for wireless health care is the cell phone, of course, said Schwarzberg and Verizon Wireless exec John Maschenic; with the increasing number of inexpensive cell phones and a variety of medical sensor devices, the cell phone as a diagnostic tool is a reality. With an estimated 3.5 billion cell phone users worldwide, text messaging in particular, already a $100 billion dollar business, will begin to be integrated into both health-IT systems and cell phones to manage and monitor health issues. “We’ll also see advancements in the use of videochat and smart band-aids, biosensors that interconnect through dedicated gateway devices or smart phones,” says Don Jones, vice president of business development for Qualcomm. Qualcomm plans to partner with carriers like Sprint Nextel or Verizon to launch a wireless mobile network that would allow people to use their cell phones to manage and monitor health issues, such as diabetes or dieting.

The success of the Apple iPhone has also created a tremendous opportunity in the wireless marketplace, with over 250 applications out of 6,000 related to health and lifestyles. “Apple is not a one-size-fits all solution, but just part of the ecosystem,” says Anand Iyer, head of WellDoc. “If you have a glucose meter, for example, it has to work across heterogeneous networks and encompass multiple devices and applications to deliver a measurable, and intangible health and economic outcome.”

To grow the wireless market, says Schwarzberg of Sensei, “it is the user experience that is critical, not the hardware. We need to create a value proposition that no one can deny and a way to have a user interface and experience that makes it so worthwhile that people will want to become engaged and empowered to do patient-centric health care. The technology is ready, but are we willing to adopt it?”



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