Alliance Formed to Promote Connected Devices
A consortium of information technology (IT) companies, medical equipment manufacturers, and healthcare providers brought IT and medical devices a step closer to convergence last month with the formation of the Continua Health Alliance. Using the latest advances in networking and electronic communications, the goal of the group is to develop a system of connected products and services to facilitate the delivery of healthcare services, particularly in lower-cost alternative care centers, including homes.
The initial efforts of the alliance will focus on three areas: chronic disease management, healthcare needs of the elderly population, and health maintenance and fitness. The group currently has 23 participating companies, including medtech manufacturers BodyMedia (Pittsburgh), GE Healthcare (Chalfont St. Giles, UK), Medtronic (Minneapolis), Nonin Medical (Plymouth, MN), Omron Healthcare (Bannockburn, IL), Philips Medical Systems (Andover, MA), Polar Electro (Kempele, Finland), Roche Diagnostics (Basel, Switzerland), and Welch Allyn (Skaneateles Falls, NY).
Other founding members of the alliance include Cisco Systems (San Jose), IBM (Armonk, NY), Intel Corp. (Santa Clara, CA), Kaiser Permanente (Oakland, CA), Motorola (Schaumburg, IL), Panasonic–Matsushita Electric (Osaka, Japan), Partners Telemedicine (Boston), RMD Networks (Englewood, CO), Samsung Electronics (Seoul, Korea), Sharp Electonics (Osaka, Japan), the Tunstall Group (Yorkshire, UK), and Zensys (Fremont, CA).
Intel's Whitlinger: Advancing connectivity
“We are creating an organization in which several seemingly disparate industries can work together to combine their products and services through connectivity standards and provide millions of people with the tools they need to better manage their health and the health of their families,” said David Whitlinger, chairman of the alliance and director of healthcare device standards for the digital health group at Intel.
Continua does not plan to get involved in standards development, but will instead promote an open architecture that uses common interfaces and communication protocols such as USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-wave, and others. “We will use the certification process to anoint different standards,” Whitlinger said. The alliance is also expected to support the continuing development of Health Level 7 (HL7), a prominent healthcare data interchange standard with widespread application in administration, billing, and clinical messaging. Products developed in compliance with Continua guidelines will be permitted to display a logo signifying interoperability with other certified products.
A major push of the alliance will be to promote home healthcare as a way of increasing patient comfort and compliance with prescribed treatment regimens while reducing costs. The group will focus on expanded development and use of remote monitoring devices and related telemedicine services. Such technologies allow patients to have key clinical measures—such as temperature, weight, blood pressure, glucose levels, cardiac rhythms, medication management, and numerous other healthcare status indices—monitored by medical professionals without the patient making a trip to the hospital or doctor’s office. Additionally, the technologies enable nonprofessional caretakers of chronically ill patients to better monitor and manage their care, thus preventing unnecessary trips to the emergency room. Similarly, remote monitoring can enable elderly patients to avoid premature placement in a nursing home, Continua states.
The alliance’s proponents also emphasize the role the group will play in health fitness and preventive maintenance. By monitoring patients and providing regular feedback on performance, healthcare experts say they can begin to promote lifestyles that reverse the increasing incidence of such debilitating conditions as obesity and diabetes. Continua’s member companies will focus on technologies that facilitate this process.
The alliance recognizes that a great deal of work lies ahead if it is to achieve its objectives. Many medtech devices and monitoring systems will have to be redesigned to properly interface with healthcare networks that will initially make use of dial-up modems and broadband Internet connections. As broadband capability and implementation expands, the alliance foresees real-time video consultations between at-home patients and hospital- or office-based healthcare professionals.
Kvedar: Promoting telemedicine’s potential.
“Telemedicine can greatly extend the reach of healthcare,” says Joseph C. Kvedar, MD, director of Partners Telemedicine, a division of Partners Healthcare and a member of the Continua Alliance. “Faced with the prospect of already overburdened traditional centers of healthcare delivery, telemedicine can not only ease the burden, but also create a more patient-centered care through the use of modern communications technology.” Kvedar is a board-certified dermatologist and vice-chair of dermatology at Harvard Medical School (Cambridge, MA).
He adds, “Telemedicine can play a key role in 21st century medicine in a variety of specialties and applications, including postoperative care in the home, wound care, and remote monitoring of patients with chronic diseases.” Kvedar notes that telemedicine continues to face challenges in such areas as licensing, liability, and insurance reimbursement, but sees these as “pseudo issues—all surmountable. A far greater concern is ensuring a communications-based healthcare system that embraces and promotes open architecture. That’s the biggest challenge—and one of the commitments of the alliance,” he says.
Medtronic’s McKeon: Leadership through unity.
While numerous standards organizations and advocacy groups have emerged over the past decade to promote greater use of information technology in healthcare, most are dominated by software and communications vendors and healthcare IT professionals. For the most part, medical device manufacturers have been conspicuously absent.
According to William McKeon, vice president of global strategy and emerging technologies for Continua member Medtronic, “It’s not about creating new technology but simply organizing the industry so all the devices and networks can work together. Each device manufacturer has been addressing this new market independently, which is creating interoperability issues. Continua wants to offer some leadership in solving this problem.”
The group’s first interoperable medical device guidelines will be issued by Continua within the next 18 months. The first certified products are expected to appear in 2008.
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