Cellular machine-to-machine (M2M) communications are opening the door to a world of innovative new healthcare applications. With the ability to collect real-time data from people and devices anywhere, and at any time, healthcare organizations and technology vendors are creating useful applications that improve people’s health and well being. For example, connected health devices are now being used in a variety of applications, such as:
- Medical and home health monitoring
- Connecting mobile caregivers and medical equipment
- Improving fitness and athletic training
- Assisting people with disabilities
Many of these applications are simply not practical—some not even imaginable—when relying on traditional fixed line communications. In today’s growing M2M market, however, new connected devices, services, and application platforms make it easier than ever before to develop innovative mobile health applications and quickly bring them to market.
So, while it’s clear that cellular connectivity is key to improving health applications and organizations, there are many things that need to be considered by healthcare institutions and companies designing solutions that leverage M2M deployments for maximum benefit.
The basic architecture of cellular M2M infrastructures is not at all that complex. It starts with connecting a remote device—whether a glucose monitor, a mobile MRI system, or an onboard diagnostics device on an ambulance—to a cellular connected modem or module. That cellular gateway interfaces with the connected asset and communicates with the back-end application infrastructure through a cloud-based portal. Through this cloud portal, organizations have real-time, secure, remote monitoring and control capabilities for all assets anywhere they may be operating.
Although the concept behind an M2M solution is straightforward, there is, in fact, a great deal of complexity beneath the surface. An M2M infrastructure must include a redundant, fault-tolerant wireless messaging system, deployed with connection to the mobile network operator (MNO). What’s more, it requires redundant back-office hardware, including database, servers, disk arrays, load balancers, etc.
Historically, designing a connected health application has also been an extremely complex task. In the past, building these kinds of applications required extensive software development, including application development tools, user interface development tools, embedded development tools, etc., all of which could require thousands of hours of custom integration and development. This is to say nothing of the many applications that can be overlooked, yet are nonetheless vital to a remote communications and control infrastructure. These include:
- Mechanisms to subscribe wireless devices to the network
- Mechanisms to control and update wireless devices
- Systems to collect information from the wireless devices and other systems to acquire and visualize that data
- Systems to manage and control the assets being monitored
Fortunately, a great deal of progress has been made in how M2M solutions are designed and deployed, and organizations developing connected health applications in the current marketplace no longer have to start from scratch or go it alone. Today, they can take advantage of mature, comprehensive M2M platforms.
Modern M2M platforms include standardized application development tools that make it easy and cost-effective to connect and interface with remote assets, and comprehensive management portals that make connecting devices over cellular networks almost a “plug-and-play” solution. With MNOs worldwide now aggressively targeting M2M customers, organizations can also now take advantage of end-to-end cellular service offerings and special airtime rates for connected assets.
To realize the most benefit from a cellular M2M implementation, however, organizations should make sure they are using a strong and well-designed M2M platform that provides all of the essential capabilities their cellular deployments will require.
A cellular M2M communications solution should include the following primary elements:
- Intelligent wireless communication devices to connect to equipment and assets
- Remote configuration and management tools to set or change parameters and remotely troubleshoot any potential connectivity issues
- A centralized and redundant front-end database where the wireless devices send data
- A centralized command-and-control infrastructure to receive and present that data
- An operations portal to manage uptime of the network of M2M devices
- An application programming interface (API) to link data from the M2M front-end database with the organization’s back-end system applications and user interfaces
In addition to providing those basic attributes, the M2M management platform must perform the following core management applications:
- Subscription Management—This encompasses all the core tasks related to managing wireless devices on a public cellular network, including activating and deactivating devices, suspending and resuming operation, changing rate plans, and monitoring wireless data consumption.
- Wireless Device Management—This encompasses the tools necessary to monitor and control all connected wireless modules and gateways. This capability allows organizations to manage updates and firmware configuration changes, for example, to respond to changing requirements of the mobile network operator.
- Management of the Underlying Asset—This encompasses how the wireless device communicates with and controls the connected asset.
In addition to ensuring the basic requirements for supporting M2M applications are met, organizations building a connected health solution should look for specific criteria when considering a wireless M2M application and management platform. To assure a system that is effective and easy to deploy and operate, the platform should:
- Be carrier-agnostic. Depending on the application, an institution or solution vendor could have assets to connect across a country, or even around the globe. To provide the flexibility to connect assets in the best manner possible no matter where they may be located, the M2M platform’s subscription management systems should be carrier-agnostic and capable of operating with multiple mobile networks worldwide.
- Provide advanced wireless device management capabilities beyond simply pushing out firmware or configuration changes. Organizations should choose platforms that can provide granular information about the health and status of wireless modems or modules to allow them to quickly diagnose issues. For example, if a device has lost wireless signal strength, the organization needs to know if it is an issue with the device or the cellular network. The M2M platform should provide the information necessary to debug those issues and communicate effectively with the network operator about any problems. It should also be scalable enough to accommodate large regional and national deployments, without adding management complexity.
- Provide advanced tools to manage and monitor connected assets. To avoid the need for extensive (and expensive) custom software development and integration, the M2M platform should make it as easy as possible to connect with deployed assets in the field. Developers should be able to easily capture control parameters and command systems for any connected health monitoring device, mobile imaging system, medical apparatus, or other asset using standard programming languages. And, they should be able to easily access exposed APIs to incorporate features and functions into the control system.
- Include comprehensive development tools. The most functional M2M platforms include application simulation tools that provide developers with detailed information about a planned function before anyone ever uses the application, allowing solution developers to make smarter business decisions. (As one example, the solution should be able to provide accurate predictions of cost differences between collecting status updates on a glucose meter every four hours versus once per day.)
- Be designed to support secure information exchange. In any healthcare context, confidentiality and security of patient information is essential. Any viable M2M solution must incorporate strong security mechanisms such as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), encrypted IPSec virtual private network (VPN) connection to the cellular network, and jamming detection. For U.S.-based mobile health and healthcare monitoring applications in particular, the solution should support all of the security mechanisms necessary to comply with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) mandates.
- Be designed to support connected applications under less-than-ideal conditions. To support ambulances, mobile imaging clinics, and other applications that must function outdoors, organizations should look for a ruggedized solution designed to withstand the elements. The M2M platform should also be fully redundant, highly reliable, and able to quickly recover from faults. Most important, to provide the nonstop reliability that healthcare applications demand, the M2M platform should support nearly 100 percent uptime and seamless failover from the primary to backup connection.
- Be comprehensive. It should include leased infrastructure, cloud software, and every other component necessary to build and operate an M2M communications platform, rather than forcing organizations to work with multiple vendors and assemble the solution themselves.
Healthcare organizations are just beginning to explore the possibilities and advantages connected health applications bring and the opportunities are vast. In the coming years, innovative mobile applications will take advantage of anywhere, anytime cellular connectivity to keep patients better connected to their doctors, to empower individuals to improve their health, and to capitalize on real-time health information in ways we can only begin to imagine. The barriers that previously would have prevented healthcare solution developers from taking advantage of mobile connectivity no longer apply. With today’s mature, comprehensive M2M application development and management platforms, organizations no longer need to develop and integrate every aspect of a connected health solution from scratch. Instead, they can rapidly transform their good ideas into real-world solutions that improve people’s lives.