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The Changing Role of Standards

by Cynthia Weber

As technology becomes further integrated into modern health care, the need for standardization and interoperability becomes more urgent. IEEE Life Sciences talks with Bill Ash, Strategic Technology Program Director with the IEEE Standards Association, about the evolving field.

IEEE LS: Let’s begin by talking about what has been happening with standards in health care over the last few years. What do you see changing?

Bill Ash: I see a higher need and demand for standards. As the healthcare data is becoming more and more digital, interoperability is becoming more critical. Being able to integrate multi-vendor solutions to reduce cost is a huge challenge.

In addition, security and privacy have always been a challenge. With digitalization of data and the growing community of consumer connectivity, these challenges are growing larger and becoming more significant. This includes the wearables industry, where there is the need for standardized data and communications for ease of integration and interoperability.

Finally, I am seeing companies that are not known for being tech companies becoming more involved in technology or changing previously what they have been known for. For example, Google is getting more involved in hardware and Adidas, a sports apparel company, is getting involved in sensors and wearable technology.

IEEE LS: Why are standards needed now more than ever?

Bill Ash: Standards are needed to help devices (medical, wearables, sensors, mobile) be connected, integrated, and interoperable.

So let’s take personal healthcare devices (PHDs) for example. Let’s say I’m diabetic. I need to track my weight and my sugar levels. In addition, I also want to track my physical activities. I have three devices I am looking at to measure and collect data. First, I need standards to allow me to connect these devices to something that will store my data. So I would use standards like IEEE 802.11 or IEEE 802.15 to do wireless connection to transmit data. Second, I would like to integrate the data into one app on my smartphone. If all the devices meet the IEEE 11073 standards for PHDs I can have one app with a single API to collect the data on all these devices. And, if I add more devices in the future and they also comply with the IEEE 11073 standards, this allows me to integrate that much easier as the API is already programmed for that data structure.

Essentially, standards allow the baseline framework to be created for interoperability, thus enabling markets to grow along with competition. In addition, this then opens possibilities for the end customer to potentially benefit from a lower cost product.

IEEE LS: Currently, where do you see opportunities and where do you envision the challenges in implementing standards at this level?

Bill Ash: Major challenges include interoperability with more and more connected devices and sensors as well as data collecting and sharing. However, on the medical side two things need to happen. One, more education is needed for the end customer, clinician, and medical integrators. This includes providing them with the awareness of what standards exist and how they can be leveraged to help with the challenges of device interoperability. Second is the need to change how the medical field has been dealing with proprietary solutions. They have been dealing with locked markets for a long time and giving them the knowledge on how to reduce cost and increase interoperability is a change for them. The challenge lies in the fact that most medical facilities have been operating with closed systems for so long and have invested a lot of money in this technology.

Bill AshBill Ash is Strategic Program Manager for the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA). He received his BSEE from Rutgers University School of the Engineering. His background is in the RF industry as he worked as applications engineer on wireless communications systems. Bill has been with IEEE-SA for over 10 years working with standards development groups covering technologies such as RF emissions, distributive generation and the National Electrical Safety Code®. He is currently leading the smart grid strategy and implementation for the IEEE-SA.

IEEE LS: What role does IEEE have in setting the stage for new and expanded standards?

Bill Ash: IEEE is a neutral platform to allow all parts of the industry to come together and develop standards and standards-related activities (e.g., education and conformity programs) to address the technology challenge in the medical community. For example, one standards project IEEE is currently working on is IEEE P1847, which is looking at framework for location services in the medical facility. Medical facilities are installing technology for providing location services for use cases such as supply chain management, asset tracking, or patient tracking. Depending on the level of granularity of location (floor, hall, room, where in the room) needed, facilities have been installing parallel systems (WiFi, RFID (active or passive), and others). Doing so raises the cost for meeting the needs of the facility. What if the system didn’t care what method of communication a tag used to send data to a backend collection point and I was able to use the most optimal technology to read the tag depending on what level of data is needed? IEEE is looking at how standards can help reduce the cost and allow for integration of different technologies.

IEEE has expertise in many different areas in the medical community and can be a driving force to help address the many challenges being presented to the medical community and the convergence of technologies like digitization of healthcare and medical IoT.

IEEE LS: What do you see happening with standards in the near future?

Bill Ash: I see standards becoming more important to help reduce cost to manufacturers and end users alike. As we see convergence of technology and the further progression of digital healthcare, the use of standards will help drive patient data access, security, privacy, and interoperability, which in turn can be leveraged to improve patient outcomes. We are starting to see this play a role in remote monitoring and telehealth. For example, the ability to have the patient recover in the comfort of their own home while being connected and monitored remotely by a clinician. Standards also are being leveraged to create the exchange of health data for personal health devices to clinician. This allows medication to be adjusted based on the monitoring information or perhaps reducing the amount of time a person spends in a hospital bed. All these are important steps in improving patient care outcomes.

IEEE LS: What can the Life Sciences community do to support the move toward increased standard implementation?

Bill Ash: Life Sciences is an area where we are seeing the convergence of many technologies, including robotics and nanotech, being leveraged for human impact and factors. The Life Sciences community needs to become engaged so that when we are bringing these converging technologies to the medical field we don’t lose sight of human life and our environment. Bringing that interdisciplinary thought and expertise to the table will be needed as the next generation of standards, technologies, and applications are developed and deployed.

Cynthia Weber is Associate Editor for the IEEE Life Sciences Newsletter.

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September 2015 Contributors

Nirmal Keshava Nirmal Keshava is a Senior Principal Informatics Scientist at AstraZeneca, PLC in Waltham, MA, where he is leading efforts to use large-scale analytics to improve the cost and efficiency of drug development. Read more
Bill Ash Bill Ash is Strategic Program Manager for the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA). He received his BSEE from Rutgers University School of the Engineering. His background is in the RF industry as he worked as applications engineer on wireless communications systems. Read more