Connecting with Patients: Is WiFi or Cellular Better for RPM?
Many in the healthcare industry are keeping an eye on the rollout of 5G wireless, which promises to connect people and things at higher speed and lower latency. In the healthcare realm, this means high-resolution images such as CT scans and X-rays can be taken and transmitted instantaneously to doctors. But it also means good things for lower-bandwidth applications, such as the volumes of rich data found in home healthcare applications.
One of the beneficiaries of 5G will be remote patient monitoring (RPM), which helps seniors live independently and transforms their care. With RPM solutions, vital statistics such as blood pressure, oxygen level, blood glucose, weight, temperature and other metrics are consistently monitored. Reliable connectivity is required to transmit data between the patient and the physician’s office or hospital. RPM solutions can also be two-way, with voice communications enabled between doctors and patients. Some RPM solutions can also track data over time and spot abnormalities in readings such as low or high blood pressure or oxygen levels, and can connect the patient to the doctor to explore solutions. The goal: Keeping patients healthy and allowing them to take a greater role in their healthcare.
By being able to take these vital signs at home and delivering to their provider automatically and in real time, the paradigm of care is shifted from episodic to preventative. This gives senior patients and their doctors much more flexibility in patient care and helps to reduce the need to visit the doctor’s office or hospital. With RPM, healthcare providers can:
- Speak in real time with a patient who might not be feeling well
- Discuss a patient’s status and review their statistics in real time
- Proactively care for patients so they don’t end up at the doctor’s office or emergency room
- Intervene in the patient’s care to get their health back to normal
RPM solutions usually connect to the internet via WiFi or cellular. As we move toward 5G, which is the best solution to provide connectivity to RPM solutions?
WiFi is the defacto home connectivity option for many people. It is relatively inexpensive, upload and download speeds have been consistently upgraded by service providers, and, in general, it works when needed. But it faces some challenges for home healthcare:
- Lack of ubiquity: According to Pew Research Group, as of 2019, only 59 percent of people over 65 have access to broadband connectivity at home. That makes it challenging to utilize WiFi in RPM solutions, which require a continuously reliable 24×7 data connection.
- Limited ease of use: Wi-Fi can be strongly protected, but that protection comes at a price: the use of complex, multi-variable passwords and other configuration steps, which some seniors may struggle with.
- Lack of 24/7 reliability: WiFi signals drop frequently. If Wi-Fi has a weak signal, loses power or goes offline for another reason—even if it’s infrequently—it impacts the ability to deliver consistent patient results back to healthcare professionals—and vice versa.
Cellular is a more reliable option for home care providers and the patients they serve. Some of the benefits of using cellular connectivity include:
- Ubiquity: People understand how cellular works. For patients aged 65 and older, 91 percent own a cellphone and of those, 53 percent own a smartphone, according to Pew Research Group.
- Simplicity of set-up: For many RPM devices, complicated configuration is not required. While some solutions providers retrofit tablets, others have purpose-built RPM solutions that simply need to be turned on.
- Consistent real-time data sets: Gathering data sets developed in real time and over time allows healthcare providers to see trends and take preventative action. Cellular is a stronger fit for this type of application.
- Upgrade path to 5G, when available: Some vendors are building 5G capabilities into their devices today to prepare for its arrival. RPM solutions that use cellular have a clear upgrade path to 5G’s high-bandwidth connectivity.
- The use of open standards and existing infrastructure. Cellular is well-proven, and RPM can use existing infrastructure as the underlying medium to connect patients and their healthcare providers and help patients take a greater role in their healthcare.
- The ability to cover hundreds of devices Cellular macrocells are able to cover a wide area, ensuring connectivity is always available for the patient
Doctors and healthcare providers can now gather patients’ rich health data through include real-time and daily readings. This allows patients to get more involved with their care, assess situations in real time, and speak with a physician when they are not feeling well, and generally to keep patients healthy and out of the doctors’ office or emergency room. RPM solutions are becoming increasingly easier to use and more feature-rich making connectivity choice imperative. Cellular connectivity will ensure solutions are available 24/7 to help keep seniors safe, and when 5G is more readily available at scale, there is a clear upgrade path for RPM solutions.
About the Author
Mark Denissen serves as the president and chief executive officer of Anelto. Previously he worked more than three decades with Texas Instruments (TI), serving in various roles before becoming VP of Worldwide Strategic Marketing. He holds a BSEE degree from the University of California Los Angeles.