Connected medical devices: a beginner’s guide

16 Apr 2019 5min read

Team Discussion

Multiple authors

Connected medical devices, as part of the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), are becoming increasingly prevalent. A 2018 report by Deloitte revealed that 48% of medical devices were connected in 2017, with that number set to grow to 68% in the next 5 years.

But what are 'connected' medical devices exactly?

There are a variety of connected medical devices on Amazon; from connected insulin pens – a smart glucose monitoring device – to an automated insulin delivery device, connected medical devices are already entering everyday life. As implied in their name, these appliances are those with communication and/or technological interface capacity beyond their basic independent function. Essentially, they are medical devices glued with connectivity.

A medical device with connectivity features is not necessarily part of the IoMT, as the ‘internet’ aspect is still missing. However, it is a major step in that direction.

Connected medical devices are poised to solve challenges the healthcare industry is facing

What technology drives connected medical devices?

When discussing medical device connectivity, there are both wired and wireless options. Compared with wired technology, there isn’t a ‘most popular’ wireless option, though there are many great technologies relevant to different use cases. In contrast, the most favoured wired technology, Ethernet, has been the international standard since 1983 and takes care of nearly everything we need: security (IEEE 802.1X), power distribution (IEEE 802.3at), quality service (IEEE 802.1Q) etc. It’s reliable, high- performance and low-cost. However, a physical cable must always be attached to the device. This is evidently not desirable for wearable devices, as inconvenience to the patient is a major drawback.

Another benefit of physical cable connectivity in connected health devices is security; when moving to wireless technology, ensuring data security becomes more of a challenge. Most wireless communication methods support around a 100m communication range, and it can be difficult to guarantee there will be no external attacks. Thanks to the wireless technology standardisation organisation, however, many security concerns have already been taken into consideration. For example, WIFI (IEEE 802.11) includes wired equivalent privacy and WI-FI protected access, while Bluetooth (IEEE 802.15.1) and Zigbee (IEEE 802.15.4) adopt AES to encrypt every single packet sent.

The choice of connectivity method for connected medical devices is generally based on a trade-off between its communication range, power consumption and cost. In short, the longer the range supported, the more expensive it will be; the higher the data rate supported, the more power hungry. Depending on the designed usage, the network topology and protocol stack used may also be taken into consideration.

MagicPol, the connected smart Calpol syringe developed by Team to help parents keep track of children medication.

Properly managed connected medical devices offer significant value to businesses and patients alike

Internet-enabled devices

After a connectivity method has been enabled on a medical device, deciding how to get it connected to the internet may be the next step.

The benefits of collecting device data via the internet are widely acknowledged, but there are also concerns around the potential security threats that internet connectivity poses. Patients, healthcare professionals and device designers want to ensure that data is safely stored and shared, but many fear that once a device is connected to the internet, it will be vulnerable to attack.

The concern is understandable, though not always well-founded. In the cloud, we can develop algorithms to constantly monitor the state of the device, allowing us to detect if the device has been attacked or compromised, and to put necessary safety measures in place. This constant connection also allows us to manage the connected health device’s firmware, security risk and health status, therefore reducing the maintenance cost.

What does the future hold for connected medical devices?

As part of the IoMT, connected medical devices offer notable potential for new business model and revenue-generating opportunities; in fact, it is estimated that the connected health device market will reach $172.9 billion worldwide by 2030.

Connected medical devices are poised to solve the challenges the healthcare industry is facing. Improved decision-making with consistent accurate data, bottom-line savings via optimised manufacture control and greater safety via real-time reminders are just a few of the ways in which properly managed connected medical devices offer significant value to businesses and patients alike.

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