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2/7/2007
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Health Care Group Preps Specs

The Continua Health Alliance is gearing up to announce a suite of technical specifications and field trials for connected medical systems and services.

San Jose, Calif. -- The Continua Health Alliance is gearing up to announce a suite of technical specifications and field trials for connected medical systems and services. The ad hoc alliance now numbers about 100 companies focused on creating technical and business backing for a new generation of networked devices.

The group already has members working on a Bluetooth profile for medical devices as part of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. Other members have been meeting on an ad hoc basis for several weeks to consider protocol changes for USB that may be needed for health care applications. The group will present its views to the USB Implementers Forum soon.

Separately, Continua members have helped drive IEEE data protocol efforts specific to medical devices. IEEE 1073 defines a wired and wireless communications transport for medical systems. IEEE 11073, now in progress, is a "much expanded body of work beyond the original 1073, and primarily focuses on delivering contemporary semantic interoper- ability rather than hardware interface standards," said Villanova University's Elliot B. Sloane, who is helping oversee the new standard effort.

IEEE 11073 is a cornerstone of the Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise project, which seeks to create links among medical systems. Vendors including Draeger, GE, Philips and Siemens will demonstrate real-time multivendor medical-device interoperability using the standard at a medical conference in New Orleans this month.

Continua expects to reveal a comprehensive suite of recommended interfaces by the end of April. It will then write interoperability guidelines for implementing those interfaces. The work is expected to be complete before the end of the year.

Today's consumer medical devices often use vendor-specific interfaces to link with each other. They also lack an accepted security approach for ensuring the privacy of data shared over the Internet with hospital systems.

"The technology today is clumsy. Devices don't work well together, and they don't hang together with the back-end systems. We can make this situation 10 times better with standards," said Joseph Kvedar, speaking at the Continua launch last June. Kvedar is director of Partners Telemedicine, a Continua member that is working with Boston-area hospitals to define new approaches to home health care.

For the most part, Continua guidelines will specify mainstream technologies, many of them developed for consumer electronics. "Thanks to the entertainment industry, we have most of what we need already available," Continua chairman David Whitlinger told EE Times. "There are some gaps, but the basic transport and encryption problems have been solved." Whitlinger is director of heath care standards at Intel Corp., which had a key founding role in Continua.

Separately, Continua members are working with insurance companies to define a set of field trials for networked medical systems. The goal is to get insurance companies to reimburse for use of the devices and services, based on demonstrated overall savings in health care. The trials may take two years.

One example of a possible trial scenario involves diabetes patients who would use a glucose meter to send data via Bluetooth to a cell phone. The data would be analyzed and reported wirelessly to an online service. Using the service, a doctor could monitor the information and intervene when necessary. But "right now there is no reimbursement for the home devices, the doctor's online services--none of it," Whitlinger said. Further in the future, the group hopes to tackle issues surrounding networked systems for monitoring fitness and the elderly.

Continua's membership has jumped from 20 to 100 since its June launch. The newest member is the National Health Service of the United Kingdom, one of the world's largest health care providers.

The group was criticized at its founding as lacking members from insurance companies and health care providers, and its membership continues to be skewed toward the tech community. Recently added members include Dell, LG Electronics, Texas Instruments and STMicroelectronics--companies that share Intel's view of an emerging frontier in medical apps as processing and networking become more affordable.

"If you look at the kinds of people in Continua, there's a shortage of people who have medical, clinical-electronics and reimbursement experience," said Mir Imran, a serial entrepreneur in medical electronics. "Some of these guys are flying a little blind. They will get to their goal, but probably not via a straight line."

In the past year, Nokia, TI and Qualcomm have started a more focused effort in consumer medical systems, Imran said.

"The convergence of cell phones and medical devices will bust open this industry," William McKeon, vice president of global strategy and emerging technology at Medtronic, said in an interview at the Continua launch last year. Medtronic's CareLink products include implantable devices and their external programmers, and home-based routers to send their data over the Internet to physicians.

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