The increasing use of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, as well as cutting-edge technologies, is pushing the health care industry to invest more in its WiFi infrastructure. In turn, these changes mean that the wireless market within health care is poised to grow to a $1.3 billion industry within the next five years, according to a new report by ABI Research.
As with many other industries, the drive to have more consumer devices connected to WiFi networks is also pushing specific vertical markets, such as health care, to invest much more in its own wireless infrastructure, according to the ABI report "Wireless Technologies in Professional Healthcare." The study examines the size of the WiFi market in the health care sector.
"WiFi has established itself as a key infrastructure technology within health care operations in North America and is continuing to expand uptake elsewhere," Jonathan Collins, an ABI analyst, wrote in an email to eWEEK. "We see adoption growing around the world over the next five years."
The number of smartphone and handheld devices connecting to WiFi networks in health care will grow by close to 20 percent in 2011, Collins added.
Major vendors creating WiFi infrastructure in health care include Aruba, Cisco Systems and Motorola.
"All three companies and their competitors have long seen potential and success in delivering WiFi hardware and services into the health care market," Collins said. "Along with stressing the benefits of wireless over wired, infrastructure vendors have also increasingly partnered and accommodated additional applications and vendor providers to drive up the ROI from deploying WiFi coverage."
New areas emerging in WiFi include MBANs (medical body area networks), which use gateway devices to access WiFi signals for mobile health monitoring. Nearly 30 million MBAN devices will ship per year by 2016, according to ABI.
An MBAN RF link uses WiFi to connect body-worn sensors, Collins said. Low-power RF communications allow wireless communications to replace wired technology in health-monitoring equipment.
"Most specifically, the wireless connection brings freedom of movement and greater comfort to the patient and with that provides the potential for longer periods of monitoring," Collins explained.
The digital nature of MBANs allows for transfer of data to EHRs (electronic health records) and allows physicians to reduce inaccuracies in test readings, he noted.
Current WiFi technology in health care includes Voice Over WiFi (the use of WiFi networks for verbal communication) and RTLS (real-time location systems). Tracking technology such as RTLS can be used to monitor hand washing and other personal hygiene practices in hospitals, according to Collins.
Wireless diagnostic sensors are also known as M2M (machine to machine) devices and can be used to manage chronic ailments such as heart conditions and diabetes and to track fitness goals.
Cisco and GE recently announced a collaboration to develop RTLS technology to track the flow of patients and equipment.
The increased demand for WiFi in health care could lead to increasing network security needs, Collins said. In November 2010, IBM had suggested a new approach to WiFi security after researchers developed a tool called Firesheep to show how social networking accounts can be hijacked over wireless networks using Firefox. The IBM approach, called Secure Open Wireless, would involve encrypted connections with digital certificates verifying legitimate users of SSIDs (service set identifiers).
In addition, with WiFi embedded in smartphones and tablets, doctors will be able to improve their workflow and efficiency, Collins said.
In 2010, ABI had reported that WiFi use in health care grew by 60 percent from 2009.