Real-time communications in medical devices

9 February 2021

How “medical things” can take advantage of WebRTC and other real-time communication tools to boost new use cases. 

Real-time communications have been used in recent years for telemedicine and patient care. This direct access from patients to health specialists makes even more sense today, during and after the COVID19 disease. WebRTC is a convenient technology for telemedicine, as it hides all the complexity (device type, browser, OS, etc.) of the user when accessing a real-time session with a doctor.

In this article we’ll explore how “medical things” (some specialists coined the term “Internet of Medical Things”) can take advantage of WebRTC and other real-time communication tools to boost new use cases.

Traditionally, IoT has been adopted from hospitals and healthcare providers to monitor patients’ health through wearables (small sensors) or even their own mobile device. Pharmaceutical companies are adapting their strategy in order to provide additional tools to customers, so they can have a different offering in the competitive market. As they have a direct revenue stream dealing with patients, helping them to monitor their health from home or any other place makes sense.

Connected medical things is a reality today boosted by smart sensors available in user devices and other major technical advances. This is the case of artificial intelligence that is helping in medical diagnosis after collecting all the information from sensors and checking that the customers or patients receive all the information that is needed. In addition, AI is also helping in medical product development and process and workflow optimization.

Another enabler is Big Data. Now doctors and experts can make diagnosis easier and more accurate. This is facilitating medical histories, statistics and demographics and improving laboratory results.

The role of WebRTC in medical devices

Despite WebRTC being well-known as the technology that is boosting video calls in the pandemic era, it’s being used for other purposes, too. Basically, WebRTC is supported by major browsers today, that provide something like an abstraction layer that hides all the complexity related to the hardware (the device) and the underlying software (operating system, etc).

What happens to those devices that lack a browser?

Small devices (embedded things, etc.) might take advantage of WebRTC as it provides a communication channel for real time communication, not only for video calls. Websockets provide a way to exchange traffic (data) in real time, with the characteristics of technology like security by default (both signalling and media are ciphered), low-latency and network efficiency.

For instance, Quobis Communications Platform has a C++ based stack for those smart devices that lack some of the components (browsers,…) needed to have a WebRTC-enabled session. This can help medical device manufacturers (including general-purpose sensors) to support WebRTC for data exchange and, even, if possible, place voice or video calls from rare devices.

An example from the trenches:  Two-way video-audio communications from the ambulance

Zebra Academy is a Belgium-based technology provider that is helping emergency services and healthcare companies to efficiently manage patients in ambulances that have suffered a heart stroke. This is the first cause of acquired disability and one of the major causes of death today world-wide.

A WebRTC-based application built on top of Quobis SDKs is running in an embedded device in some ambulances to get two-way video-audio communications from the ambulance and get information from local sensors really easy to adopt for paramedics. This, together with a powerful web application for the doctor in the hospital (who is monitoring the shared critical stroke data) is reducing the criticality of the patients when they are being transferred to the hospital. We can talk about real-time treatment through registration and correction of vital parameters in the ambulance.

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