Near-field communication poised to be mHealth's next big wave

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The floodgates may only have opened a crack, with just two near-field communication-enabled devices launched into the mHealth space in the past month--one for sleep tracking, and another for monitoring post-op infections--but a flood of NFC-enabled healthcare products are coming. Healthcare bloggers, IT experts and others all agree the nascent technology is poised to invade healthcare from all sides, with everything from NFC-enabled glucometers that can read strips without patients touching a button, to skin patches from which doctors can download vital sign information during an office visit.

There's a bit of a breathless quality to the predictions just yet, and there should be. It's a wide-open field, with few products market-ready, but lots of ideas rolling around for how to harness the technology. Here are just a few:

  • Check-ins: Better than sign-in sheets or even kiosk sign-ins--NFC-enabled smartphones could allow patients to check in at the doctor's office, hospital or even ER.
  • Staff location/management: Home care companies in the Netherlands and the U.K. are using the technology to determine when staff arrive and leave a patient's home, and to allow them to upload and download patient information in a hands-free manner. And there's a clear case for using NFC technology to sign healthcare workers in and out of hospital units.
  • At-home diagnostics: One of the leading firms in the space, Gentag, is developing a testing platform that would combine NFC with immunoassay technology to allow at-home self-testing for pregnancy, fertility, drugs, allergens and even pathogens, according to company officials.
  • Fitness: NFC chips could enable smartphones to automatically upload (or download) an individual's exercise performance, rather than requiring them to upload or data-enter their information.
  • Emergency connectivity: EMTs could use the technology to identify injured patients without touching or moving or even talking to them.
  • Pharmacy: Patients could update and refill prescriptions and get information on side effects through NFC-enabled phones.

For CIOs, though, a host of unanswered questions remain. Most important: Where (and how) do you install NFC readers at hospitals? At the entrance? In the ER? On individual units? It could take some time to parse out where the data should be collected, and even more to determine how to use all that information on patients and healthcare staff comings and goings.

Security, too, should top the list of hospital questions about NFC tech, particularly how to ensure that patients' data is accessed with their permission only. Several bloggers insist that NFC-enabled phones can be set up to require a PIN before releasing information, and the already successful Google Wallet and other smartphone-based payment services indicates the security questions may be resolved before healthcare even really enters the NFC race.

Reda Chouffani with Meaningful Healthcare Informatics Blog at HealthITExchange, recommends a bit of a "wait-and-see" approach, to determine how NFC technology will actually be married up to mobile devices. "[W]ith more popular consumer electronics manufacturers including NFC chips in their devices [Apple, Nokia, HTC, Google, and others alike], all we have to do is sit back and evaluate the business case of using such technology and ensure that a tangible ROI is there for us to pursue," Chouffani says.

But healthcare CIOs can't sit on the sidelines too long. A recent survey by Mastercard indicates consumers are adopting NFC-enabled banking and financial services at an exponential rate--and may soon expect the same capability at their healthcare facilities. - Sara