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Medical Devices Get Wireless, Smart, Secure

AT&T's cloud-based machine-to-machine communications services help device maker nSpire collect data faster, save international roaming charges.

7 Patient Education Tools
7 Patient Education Tools
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AT&T is teaming up with nSpire Health, a Longmont, Colo.-based maker of devices and software for treating respiratory ailments, to improve the speed, security, and accuracy of data collection in clinical trials of new drugs and medical devices.

The communications service provider will provide machine-to-machine communications services across its wireless network, a Web portal for nSpire to manage devices in the cloud, and other professional services. This technology supports nSpire's PiKoLogic, a peak-flow meter with an embedded cellular chip, paired with an electronic diary for test subjects to record their observations. PiKoLogic employs branching logic, asking questions based on previous responses and on measures of the patient's respiratory flow.

AT&T customized a Web portal to collect data for an nSpire team working on U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of a new respiratory device, according to Mobeen Khan, chief marketing officer and executive director of AT&T's advanced mobility solutions business unit. The alternative, Khan, told InformationWeek Healthcare, is to ask study participants to fill out forms and wait perhaps weeks for the information to come back.

nSpire has been using e-diaries for years for trial subjects to record their observations. "We've been in the e-diary business before it was cellular," says Chip Owen, nSpire's global director of clinical trial information services.

[ Which healthcare organizations came out ahead in the IW500 competition? See 10 Healthcare IT Innovators: InformationWeek 500. ]

NSpire, whose customers include healthcare facilities and pharmaceutical companies looking to test the efficacy of inhaled drugs, has had wireless connectivity before, but had difficulty working with service providers in emerging countries. "There were lots of dangers," Owen said. Of note, Owen reported that the company got burned by gross overcharging by the state-run mobile operator in Ukraine. AT&T privatizes the communications channel on its Enterprise On-Demand platform and validates billing for nSpire.

"We have a very strong global and cross-carrier platform," Khan said. AT&T partners with mobile carriers in other countries so nSpire, which has offices in Britain and Germany, can deploy the devices abroad and still be billed through AT&T.

NSpire already embeds SIM cards in each peak-flow meter so the communications chips are not easily accessible, but the new arrangement includes multiple levels of security just in case. "No longer are we using a device with a SIM that can be used in another device," Owen said. Should someone crack the housing and remove the SIM card, that person would need a password for the private access point name (APN) in AT&T's cloud. And if a thief somehow got hold of the right password, the card still could only communicate with an nSpire server, rendering the SIM useless for phone calls or other data uses.

The deal with AT&T also allows nSpire to reprovision and "unprovision" SIM cards, according to Owen, turning on and turning off devices on demand, so the device maker only pays for service on active units. The two companies have a preset arrangement to turn off any SIM if it is "behaving badly," simply by sending a text message to the suspect device, Owen said.

The AT&T platform offers what Owen called a "playroom" for software developers. For example, an agricultural company could easily write an application that remotely turns on a GPS locator in a tractor suspected as stolen, according to Owen.

This is but one example of machine-to-machine communications, which Khan believes is the next major growth area for mobile carriers. "We are at the perfect tipping point for this industry to really grow like a hockey stick," Khan said. Speed, network coverage, device usability, and price all have gotten to the point where adoption can be widespread.

As a result, the kind of pattern recognition that has been tracking human behavior online now is starting to be applied to objects, according to Khan. For example, a temperature sensor can determine that a piece of heavy machinery is overheating and send that information wirelessly to a control system in the cloud, which then returns a message to shut the engine down. Or a scale on a trash or recycling bin can determine if the receptacle is full, then automatically schedule a pickup, saving the time and expense of sending trucks when they are not needed, Khan explained.

When are emerging technologies ready for clinical use? In the new issue of InformationWeek Healthcare, find out how three promising innovations--personalized medicine, clinical analytics, and natural language processing--show the trade-offs. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)

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