The health care industry can expect to get a big shot in the arm in the coming months from IT vendors as more and more top-tier OEMs look to invest considerable time and money in solutions for patients and doctors.
In just the past several months, some of the biggest names in IT—IBM, Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, Texas Instruments—have begun offering new technologies to address the needs of the heath care industry. These include solutions built around RFID (radio-frequency identification) and embedded microprocessor technology for hospital emergency rooms as well as for patient use at home.
Part of the reason for this push into health care is the growing needs of patients in the United States. In addition to the ranks of the elderly growing year after year, the baby boom generation is preparing to retire within the next decade, which will place additional pressure on the countrys health care system.
Those and other concerns affect the bottom line, and it shows in the amount of money health care companies are willing to spend on new technology to ease its burden. According to IDC, U.S. health care organizations spent $19.1 billion on IT in 2006 and will spend $20.4 billion this year. By 2010, that number will increase by nearly 25 percent to $25.5 billion.
The fact that major IT vendors such as AMD, Intel and IBM have started to turn more attention to health care both in hospitals and in the home is not surprising, said Alan Louie, research director at Health Industry Insight, a subsidiary of IDC.
First, theres the notion that more patients want more access to information from the home, with sites like WebMD growing in importance. Next, there is the idea of the "eHome," which is even more connected to the outside thanks to better broadband Internet connections and improvements in software and PC hardware. This allows for more flexibility for patients and their physicians.
"A person may have a camera connected to the PC that they use to keep connected with their family, and its not so much to take that to the next level and interact with the physician," Louie said.
"There is also a push out there to reduce the cost of health care," Louie said. "Essentially, if there are devices out there that can reduce the amount of emergency rooms visits, companies are going to want to pursue that. There are a lot of companies looking to improve health care and lower costs."
IT companies have turned to a range of technologies to deliver these low-cost solutions to the health care industry. On May 23, IBM, along with several partners, announced an agreement to co-develop microprocessors on a 32-nanometer manufacturing process.
By shrinking the size of the chip, IBM is looking to make the processors smaller, more energy efficient and cheaper to produce. This type of chip is tailored-made for smaller devices, and IBM executives stressed the medical field as one vertical market that could take advantage of this technology.
So far, IBM has not disclosed how these embedded chips will be used, but the Armonk, N.Y., company has signaled that this is one direction it will pursue.
"IBM and other companies have been pursuing these types of devices with embedded devices for a while," Louie said. "Its a really smart move because a lot of times consumers dont want to think about the device that they are using. Consumers are looking for solutions, not technology."
Besides embedded chips for health care, Intel has tried to chart several different courses in this field. Along with Motion Computing, the Santa Clare, Calif., chip maker has started selling a new tablet PC—the C5 MCA (mobile clinical assistant)—specifically designed for the rigors of hospital use. Louie reasoned that once a new device is tested in a hospital setting, it does not take long for the device to find its way into the home.
In addition, Intel has several other programs, especially in Europe, which has its own aging and health care issues. One of those programs, TRIL Centre, which stands for Technology Research for Independent Living, brings health care industry and academic experts together with companies like Intel to test new technologies for helping the elderly live independently.
"Our strategy in health care is to first start by asking what unmet health care needs exist—whether those people are patients, caregivers, doctors, nurses or administrators—and then combine and integrate the hardware, software, standards and services to create health care platforms that deliver totally new, technology-enabled experiences that meet those needs," Louis Burns, vice president and general manager of Intels Digital Health Group, wrote in an e-mail to eWEEK.
Still other vendors, such as Texas Instruments, have turned to RFID technology for more industrywide solutions. With a Pittsburgh company called Mobile Aspects, Texas Instruments has developed iRISupply, a system that uses RFID to track inventory, expiration dates for products and other patient information.
Texas Instruments was also instrumental in developing the RFID technology in Motion Computings C5 tablet PC.
AMD has also been exploring the use of RFID technology. The Sunnyvale, Calif., chip maker has partnered with the MedicAlert Foundation and Siemens to come up with a system that allows doctors and nurses to instantly know the entire medical history of a patient. The system works with an RFID reader that recognizes an embedded processor in the MedicAlert card patients carry with them.
"There are few better examples of this than the health care industrys embrace of technology to maximize efficiencies, increase security and provide an accurate, real-time picture of a patients medical history," Ed Gasiorowski, AMDs director of Commercial Vertical Industries, wrote in an e-mail.
"AMD believes technology will play a significant role in ensuring secure access to accurate and up-to-date information like patient records. We are proud to be working with companies like MedicAlert, to help stimulate new innovation based on successful technologies, like RFID, and advance the state of health care."