It's fun to imagine new technologies for health care, especially gadgets like computing devices. Imagine a cell phone that can read and write RFID tags, capture data from medical devices, and run applications on the handset that interact with backend servers. You could do some very interesting things with a phone like this - patient identification, asset tracking and data acquisition for starters. With the RFID tag writing feature, you could create tags in the field for meds, DME (durable medical equipment like wheel chairs), or devices like oxygen therapy systems - all without a separete tag writer. You could also store or update transaction data in tags that are already deployed, creating data persistence between visits.

Interesting things could be done with a phone like this with patients. For example, you could write and deploy applications to track drug usage (including reminders when necessary). Patients would be issued blank RFID tags that they would write and
apply to meds for new prescriptions and refills. Their phone can remind
them when to take meds, and they can scan the RFID tag when they take
the medication. An application could even remind them when to get
refills. The could acquire physiological data from scales and other monitoring devices, and track/modify patient behavior for, say, diet and exercise. Remote patient monitoring devices don't need an expensive and power draining radio (as you'll see), nor does the home require a gateway and a physical connection to a phone line or broadband connection.

Well you've probably guessed the phone that does all these things is pictured at right. The Nokia 3220 is one of two Nokia GSM/GPRS phones that include an "NFC shell" that is used for reading and writing RFID tags (the other phone is the 5140). The RFID frequency used is 13.56 MHz, has a reading range of 2-5 cm, and conforms to ISO 14443A and EMCA 340 standards.

NFC stands for Near Field Communications and was initially developed by the same Sony/Philips partnership that brought us the audio compact disc. The technology was developed for smart cards, cell phones and other consumer electronics to automate transactions like credit card purchases, unlocking doors, or ordering online entertainment. The data link only works within a range of 8 inches or less. Data transfer is rather slow at 212 kilobits per second - this limits transfers to small amounts of data, so NFC is not likely to replace Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. An NFC chip costs around 20 cents, a Bluetooth radio compares at $4 to $5 per radio. Like passive RFID tags (actually exactly like passive tags) NFC is unpowered - the reader/writer excites the NFC chip with the reader's own RF energy. There's now an NFC Forum, whose members are the usual suspects (MasterCard, Nokia, Microsoft, Matsushita, Samsung, Sony, etc.) You can always tell when a new technology might make it when market studies start to come out - you can get one on NFC technology and market applications here.

Nokia also provides an infrastructure on which to build and deploy applications. For writing apps to run on the handset, they've got a Local Interactions Java SDK. On the server side, they provide connections to an SMS gateway, provide tag, location and event data, authentication and authorization, client provisioning, and administration. They also provide an external Web Services interface. When you visit the Nokia site, just ignore all the references to Field Force and Field Service, and imagine it says health care.

When I heard about this, my first question was deployment and carrier involvement. Current plans are to sell the phones through special health care resellers, and not through carriers. Resellers would buy SIMS from whichever GSM/GPRS carrier provided the best coverage in their area, put them in the phone and have them activated. One nice thing about this arrangement is that the phones won't be "locked" - i.e., coded so they will only operate on one particular carrier's network, and not any others.

Pretty cool, eh? The phone and related infrastructure is becoming available in the U.S. on a pilot project basis, so if you're interested, let me know.

UPDATE: A reader left a comment observing that this is not "new" news - and they're right. The NFC technology was introduced by Nokia at the end of 2004 (press release). This post is more about the application of Nokia's technology bundle in health care, and how it might be used.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for OEMs like Nokia and other members of the NFC Forum is getting third parties to build solutions using NFC technology. Making a phone with NFC built in is the easy part. It is a good sign that the "NFC shell" link above is currently the second most popular out-going link on this web site.

From an adoption stand point, this is still new technology. Sure it's already been on the gadget websites, but it has yet to be released in the U.S. My quick Google search didn't turn up any, you know, actual solutions you could buy using NFC - and certainly none in health care. Time will tell whether this not-so-new technology will be put to good use; let's hope so.