In addition to regularly adopting new technologies that improve patient outcomes and help save lives, the healthcare industry is also embracing new technologies that support their valued medical staff in various ways and optimize healthcare operations. While IoT brings a lot of potential for optimization to the healthcare industry, it also encounters obstacles that have worked to limit its adoption at scale. Many of these connected solutions are battery-powered and therefore require maintenance time to change the batteries on a somewhat regular basis. This also leads to the disposal of billions of depleted batteries that end up contaminating landfills around the world. The financial burden brought about by batteries is also staggering. The material and labor costs of battery replacement add up fast, particularly given industrial volumes. For IoT devices to be more widely adopted across the healthcare industry, the devices and their maintenance cost need to be minimized.
IoT Applications & Energy Harvesting
Over the past few years, a few cutting-edge technologies have emerged to solve the issues associated with batteries in IoT devices, ushering in new possibilities for IoT in healthcare. Lowest power radio, on-demand wake-up, and multisource energy harvesting are a few key technologies that help significantly extend the battery life of wireless devices. Lowest power radio technology is designed to enable connected devices to operate with minimal power, maximizing battery life. When used with the latest Bluetooth LE standard, these technologies can power batteries that last the lifetime of a device, and can even replace the need for batteries in a device. Let’s consider the following examples of healthcare IoT applications that would benefit from energy harvesting:
#1: Asset Tracking
Tracking hospital assets like medical equipment and computers can be a tedious task, and this only becomes worse as deployments become larger. By outfitting machines with small tag-like beacons or sensors, hospitals can easily track thousands of assets at a time and ensure that every location has the equipment it needs. In this example, hospital staff may need to keep track of the number of defibrillators on each floor of their facility. Once a defibrillator is taken from its location, a sensor can keep track of its whereabouts so other medical staff don’t have to spend unnecessary time searching for equipment in situations where a second counts. As hospitals across the country tackle the growing challenge of accounting for all their equipment, wirelessly-connected battery-free devices make it easier to track medical assets in real-time for the benefit of hospital workers and patients alike.
#2: Noncritical Patient Monitoring
Examples of noncritical patient monitoring include badges or wristbands that incorporate sensors. These might be battery-less bands that read simple data to share vitals—such as common biometrics or even patient IDs—over a Bluetooth network connection. RF or light-sourced energy is available through the hospital to power such devices. In some cases, the patient could be sent home with the same monitoring device, helping continue the tracking of various vitals post-hospital stay, since the first few days after a hospital stay are sometimes crucial for the transition of the patient into home care. In addition, connected badges or wristbands can track the whereabouts of patients while they are at the facility, an extremely important function for large campuses.
With energy harvesting technologies and other low-power optimizations that make this sort of patient tracking viable and cost-effective, healthcare professionals can better focus their limited time on the patients who need the most attention while still providing care to patients in less critical conditions.
#3: Indoor Location Beacons
Navigating large hospitals and healthcare campuses can be a challenge for both patients and medical professionals. While someone might be able to find the building using their favorite mapping application, a smartphone’s GPS is not very helpful indoors when searching for a specific room. One solution is to place smart beacons around medical campuses and buildings, enabling patients and employees to use a smartphone app. These applications can use signals from beacons placed throughout the campus or hospital to help people get where they need to go. The beacons can be connected via Bluetooth and can be battery-free, harvesting energy from nearby devices through RF signals or indoor light energy. When hospitals are busy and staff is stretched thin, applications such as these help medical staff to be as efficient as possible.
Potential in the Healthcare Field
In summary, energy harvesting offers significant potential in the healthcare field to help both patients and practitioners take advantage of IoT applications that can help make their lives easier, without worrying about missing critical information due to a dead battery. In the coming years, lifelong battery or battery-free solutions enabled by energy harvesting will become the norm across every industry imaginable, offering the convenience of a device that always works.