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Bluetooth-Enabled Pulse Oximeter Is Only the Beginning

Originally Published MPMN November 2002

INDUSTRY NEWS

Bluetooth-Enabled Pulse Oximeter Is Only the Beginning

Elaine Paoloni

The constricting wires of current monitoring devices are a hindrance to both patients and caregivers. In an effort to eliminate such obstacles, Nonin Medical Inc. and Penell a/s are developing the first Bluetooth-enabled pulse oximeter, which wirelessly transfers data from a sensor to a freestanding monitor.

Bluetooth wireless technology has found an important niche in the medical device industry. Although its initial goal was simply to improve personal communications systems such as cell phones and laptops, the wireless innovation today is streamlining healthcare procedures such as medical monitoring.

One of its latest applications is the first Bluetooth-enabled pulse oximeter, currently in development by Nonin Medical Inc. (Minneapolis) and Penell a/s (Hadsund, Denmark). The pulse oximeter, which measures blood oxygen saturation, merely requires that a sensor be attached to the fingertip of the patient being monitored. The technology then wirelessly transmits the information to a freestanding monitor up to 10 meters away. This eliminates unwieldy cables, allowing patients to walk around freely or to shift position in bed.

"Our aim is to further improve the flexibility of our technology, simplify the job for the healthcare provider, and add to the comfort of patients being monitored," says Gary Tschautscher, chief executive officer of Nonin.

But the pulse oximeter, scheduled to reach the market next year, is more than just a cutting-edge product for Nonin. Its technological capabilities are ready to be parlayed into expanding the company's OEM business. Nonin is prepared to offer wireless pulse oximetry to other manufacturers for integration into more-complex monitoring devices that measure blood oxygen saturation as only one of several parameters. "The future will bring new devices for patient monitoring in areas and situations not yet imagined," says Tschautscher.

Penell is also looking beyond the pulse oximeter, working with companies—such as Nonin—eager to employ a technology full of possibilities. It is currently working on a project to send data from a small but high-volume healthcare product, via a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone, to a data server on the Internet. The project is expected to be completed in 10–16 months.

"Bluetooth makes it possible for new devices, like [the] pulse oximeter, to operate seamlessly with different types of products, such as PDAs, PCs, cellular phones, and wireless networks based on Bluetooth," remarks Bjarne Flou, chief executive officer of Penell a/s. Demonstrating the scope of Bluetooth's potential, Penell also is developing a trial product that wirelessly transfers diagnostic data in an intensive care unit from a battery-operated medical device to a Bluetooth access point, and then directly to an electronic patient record (EPR), according to Flou.

Furthermore, the company is introducing a design-in solution at Medica 2002 in Düsseldorf, Germany. It will be able to transmit data using Bluetooth from a battery-operated device to a server via a wireless local network, or through a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone over the Internet to the server. "Using this technology, a number of portable devices can give input directly to the EPR or offer similar benefits where diagnostic data are shared on-line," explains Flou.

Although it took three years for Bluetooth technology to reach the marketplace, it now seems that its basic function—cable replacement—has been achieved. "The price is dropping rapidly, and we are already facing solutions below the $5 limit, although they are simple ones in large quantities," Flou says.

Still, some questions about Bluetooth remain, such as how vastly the healthcare market will implement the technology and how deep the penetration will be. Another unknown factor is when the next version of the technology will be introduced. As of now, Version 1.1 is the standard, with a Version 2.0 still years away, the creators of Bluetooth inform. They promise that Version 2.0 and subsequent standards will be backward-compatible to Version 1.1, encouraging product developers—who have been delaying introductions for fear that a newer version was just around the corner—to start launching Bluetooth products.

Despite such lingering uncertainties, Bluetooth—named after the tenth-century Danish Viking king Harald "Bluetooth" Blatand—is already well accepted. It is a safe and reliable technology, as it encrypts and retransmits data. Another benefit is its frequency hopping, which guards against interference. Finally, Bluetooth is competitive in cost, Flou explains, because it will be a high-volume technology.

"Bluetooth wireless technology is set to become commonly used in healthcare and medical devices," predicts Flou. Like its namesake who unified the people of Denmark and Norway, the technology is in a position to transform the world of healthcare.

Copyright ©2002 Medical Product Manufacturing News

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