The first medical devices featuring low-cost 'drop-in' wireless technology have appeared under a global initiative to improve healthcare data communications.

A Bluetooth-enabled blood-pressure monitor and scales from A&D Medical are among the first commercial products to be certified by the Continua consortium, according to the UK's Cambridge Consultants whose Vena software platform is deployed in the devices.

The first of a planned new generation of telehealth devices, they will be able to be used by patients in their own homes, rather than in a hospital or GP's surgery. This will allow their blood pressure and body mass to be continuously monitored by doctors, leading to lower treatment costs and improved patient outcomes, as problems can potentially be picked up in between scheduled appointments. Meanwhile, if the person's health is good and their condition is stable, doctors will have the ability to cancel or reschedule unnecessary check-ups, allowing this time to be used for other patients instead.

Designed to drop in to existing devices at any stage of the design or production process, Vena enabled A&D's devices to complete Continua Version One Design Guideline certification without a costly product redesign, claimed the UK technology group. The Continua Health Alliance, a consortium of more than 200 healthcare and technology companies, is working to improve the quality of telehealth and healthcare in general by establishing a system of interoperable device communication based on common standards.

By conforming to Continua standards, device makers can ensure that, for example, the data collected is shown in a uniform way, allowing the products to reach the market faster.

'We have been involved with Continua for just more than 18 months,' said Paul Williamson, head of wireless medical at Cambridge Consultants. 'Our role is to implement the guidelines they have been producing and make these accessible in the products we are seeing evolving. We have a lot of experience with Bluetooth, so we can produce devices with Bluetooth capability at a low cost. Using this, the device can transmit information to an electronic medical record system.'

Cambridge Consultants has also shown that information collected in this way can be ported to services such as Google Health: a patient records system that operates in the US and that has been suggested as an alternative to the £12bn national patient record database ordered by the present government. This allows patients to store their own medical records online and control which doctors can access them themselves, rather than medical staff holding the information.

The Vena software platform is installed directly onto the existing hardware and sensor of A&D's blood-pressure monitor and weighing scales. It embeds the Bluetooth Health Device Profile, optimised for the secure transport of medical data over a wireless connection, onto a single chip. Information collected is shared through common communication channels such as telephones, mobile phones, PCs, TV set-top boxes and other dedicated health devices. According to Williamson, the two products produced so far show the technology's potential for being able to meet the needs of future medical monitoring.

'By producing both the blood-pressure monitor and the weighing scales, we have shown that the technology is adaptable — the scales are low-power devices that only take a reading infrequently, unlike the monitor,' he said. 'The intention is that these are the first of many devices, giving people access to services at home without having to manage a cumbersome PC interface. With Bluetooth capability, the device becomes part of the everyday routine, while for healthcare providers there is a huge gain in being able to collect such data.'

Globally, 300 million people are clinically obese and 600 million have chronic diseases such as diabetes that would benefit from continuous monitoring. This would detect any sudden deterioration in the patient's health, alerting medics to his or her need for immediate treatment that could prevent future debilitating complications.

Julia Pierce