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Looking at the Possibility of NFC Technology in Healthcare

March 3, 2013
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It turns out that near-field communication (NFC) technology isn’t just for buying that scone from Starbucks.

While NFC has helped people across the country buy a cup of coffee, check into an event, or purchase tickets to a concert or sporting event with the swipe of a smartphone, the emerging technology is still a relatively unknown quantity in healthcare, especially in the U.S. Having just sat in on the RFID (radio-frequency identification) pre-conference symposium at HIMSS13 in New Orleans, I’m thinking that may change in the near future.

A pair of NFC advocates talked about some of the various use cases and possibilities of NFC in healthcare. The two advocates were Jim Li, Ph.D., director of medical affairs at Omron, a Japanese-based company, and Don Jones, vice president of global strategy and market development at the San Diego, Calif.-based Qualcomm, and someone who is apparently enough of a big deal to get his own Wikipedia page (the litmus test of importance for people my age).

They gave various reasons why NFC, which pairs devices, tags and readers in extremely close proximity, is worth looking into in the first place. Low cost, low power, easy implementation, and high availability (four out of five smartphones, I believe Jones said) were four in particular that they mentioned. They also advocated for NFC device security, saying the devices had to be within centimeters of each other for the data to pass through, and other layers of protection, such as encryption, were mentioned as well.

The meatiest stuff, from my view, was the actual use cases. The one that intrigued me the most was from Jones, and is basically a wireless diagnostic skin patch or band-aid. These are band-aids or patches with one of more physiological sensors in them, and some with as many as a dozen physiological sensors, which can read and pull clinical information directly from your body through a smartphone reader and sent to a cloud-managed system. Jones said there were hundreds of these in development.

There are also a lot of various possibilities with NFC and population health, according to what Dr. Li reported. Pairing NFC-enabled blood pressure monitoring devices with smartphones, he mentioned how Omron was able to map out the various blood pressure levels of Japan in the spring and fall seasons. They also mapped out how many steps, on average, people across the country of Japan were walking per day, with this technology. Can you imagine using this to track the spread of a viral disease?

NFC technology was also mentioned in relation to prescription refill, compliance monitoring, device to device connection, integration, and disease management. The advantage, he says, is it can get information from various sources, some of which aren’t traditional data sources such as how many steps you’ve walked in a day, to the internet and a cloud-managed system, and ultimately a clinician setting.

“The NFC part is an important little ingredient that helps the data flow,” Jones said.