By: Pascal Pfiffner

[Pascal Pfiffner, MD, PhD is an post-doctoral informatics fellow at Boston Childrens Intelligent Health Lab and the lead programmer of MedCalc, a medical calculator for iOS. He recently attended a fascinating meeting of the MIT Enterprise Forum on NFC Healthcare Technologies in Cambridge and submitted this report.]

Whenever a new technology emerges, people come up with ideas on how this technology could be used in healthcare to improve outcome and reduce costs.

This is especially true for wireless technologies: cellphones have, amongst other things, been predicted to improve healthcare access in rural areas, WiFi has been predicted to spawn a myriad of portable devices to be used on hospital wards, and Bluetooth promised to bring improved sensor devices to hospitals.

These technologies were enthusiastically received, but after reality set in I dare say that they have not brought the predicted revolution to healthcare. Undeniably, they have improved certain aspects of a physician’s daily life, and cellphones in particular are making a big difference in healthcare in Africa. But it’s not too far fetched to claim that WiFi and Bluetooth in hospitals have mostly enabled us to use our personal devices more ubiquitously. Maybe it is now possible to bring a laptop on ward rounds, but honestly, this is not the revolution everybody hoped for.

Enter Near Field Communication (NFC), a wireless protocol designed to allow data exchange over very short distances, usually a few centimeters. NFC is entering the smartphone market. Thus, unsurprisingly, NFC is slated to bring the wireless revolution to healthcare, which is why I went to the accordingly titled “NFC In Smartphones Transforms Healthcare” event at MIT in Cambridge. This event was organized by NFC Cluster Boston, an enterprise-focused interest group looking to “stimulate innovation through development of NFC technology in smartphones and other devices”. It was an interesting change from all the academic events I usually attend, but let’s stay focused here:

NFC standards (NFC forum, Wikipedia) are based on the more widely known Radio Frequency identification (RFID) standards. Nokia introduced the first NFC-enabled phone six years ago, and in the last two years an increasing number of smartphones and Android powered phones with NFC support have appeared on the market, starting with the Nexus S .

The keynote speaker at the February 6 event (slides from the conference can be seen here) was Prof. Masanori Akiyama M.D., Ph.D. from Tokyo University, who talked about NFC use cases in Japan. NFC-related technologies are in widespread use throughout Japan, almost every non-smartphone mobile phone has some kind of a near field sensor, with e-ticketing and e-payments being the major applications. I might be mistaken in some conclusions I got from Prof. Akiyama as he was hard to understand, but from what I gathered despite the widespread mainstream use of NFC-like technologies, NFC in medicine in Japan is mostly experimental, as in the rest of the world.

After his talk, three companies laid out their vision on how NFC might improve healthcare.

First, SleepTrak (iMedicalApps article) brought to market an armband with a thin sensor card, to be worn during sleep. This armband monitors the users’ motion during sleep. The idea is to enable patients to detect unhealthy sleeping patterns early – sleep apnea comes to mind. NFC technology comes into play when putting the armband on, assumed to mark the time going to bed, and in the morning, when data collected on the armband is transferred to the smartphone by placing the phone on top of the sensor card.

An app on the smartphone then logs all data, shows graphs of sleep length vs. length of time in bed, REM phases and, by asking a couple of questions like “did you awake because of snoring”, may hint at a troublesome sleep. While this application is definitely a good idea, certainly for people caring about their health, the addition of NFC in my eyes does not make a big difference from, say, plugging the card into the phone. I’m picking on this because the title of the event reads “NFC transforms healthcare” and I expected to see this claim backed up. Not there yet, let’s move on.