Health care delivery is inherently mobile; patients and staff not only go from place to place for diagnosis or therapy - surveillance, alarm notification and voice communications can require wireless network connectivity while traversing significant distances. Consequently, one of the largest challenges facing medical device vendors today is wirelessly enabling their products. Not only do vendors have to manage the short life cycles (6 to 18 months) of general purpose computing components, they also need access to a whole new esoteric specialty, RF engineering.

There is a scarcity of OEM suppliers that can provide 802.11 radios suitable for embedded use - so few that some medical device vendors are building their own component radios. In the early days of 802.11FH, there were a number of suppliers used by medical device vendors, like Proxim, Symbol, Nortel and Aironet. These days the embedded radio vendor of choice (based on recent adoption by GE and Spacelabs) seems to be Symbol. Symbol is a great company with great products; but they're a manufacturer of their own products first, and an OEM supplier second.

There is a recent market entry that is taking aim at the embedded radio business as their sole focus: Summit Data Communications. According to this eWeek article:

Using 802.11b/g Wi-Fi radios from Broadcom, the Summit modules are
tweaked to optimize the radio's range and to maximize the battery life
of the device, [Summit VP Ron] Seide said.

They are designed to run in environments from 22 below zero to 167 degrees Fahrenheit.

So far Summit has two products—a Compact Flash module with antenna connectors and a PCMCIA adapter. [Both pictured right.]

Initially they support Microsoft Windows CE, but future versions
will support Windows XP, variants of Linux, and some proprietary
real-time operating systems.

The company also will ship software that lets users set radio and security parameters, Seide said.

Much of Summit's management came from the wireless radio group at Cisco. When Cisco moved away from their own radios, they saw an untapped need for vertical market embedded radio products combined with RF engineering support to make wireless enablement a less harrowing experience.

UPDATE: It occurred to me this morning that perhaps I should mention some of the wireless enablement challenges that lie beyond integrating an embedded radio. If you're a connectivity buyer, the following will show you what to look for in a vendor who can effectively deliver a robust solution.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the fact that a wireless medical device has to talk to something, like a server. Medical device servers are not rocket science, but they entail a comprehensive set of requirements and can cost as much or more to develop than the medical device they support (the good news is you don't necessarily have to write your own server). Oh, and once you start the R&D for a server (or client software, for that matter) you will never stop. Unlike your medical device that only requires occasional sustaining R&D work after release, software products are never really finished. There's also a new set of market requirements that come into play, things like reliability, security and integrating with third party systems.

Adopting connectivity also requires an adjustment to your business delivery system. The first of these changes comes in the regulatory strategy for your connectivity system - the networked device, clients, and server. Making the same risk assumptions and taking the same regulatory approach as you do with stand alone devices, will add unnecessarily to your time to market and R&D costs throughout the system's life cycle. The way you manufacture, sell, quote, install and support networked medical devices is also different enough from standalone medical devices to impact profitability and customer satisfaction if certain changes are not made. Best practice requires business planning that extends beyond R&D to anticipate and plan for impacts across the organization.

So, look to your radio vendor for help with radio integration, antenna design, and optimizing RF performance. For the rest, call your connectologist.