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Wireless Body Area Networks

wbanWireless networking has become increasingly pervasive throughout our lives with the emergence of new communications technologies and techniques which have had a dramatic effect on the efficacy of the technology. As systems and ideas catch up with the tools available to them, one very interesting area which has been touched by wireless networking is that of the human body and its very immediate surroundings. Such networks are known as WBANs (Wireless Body Area Networks).

As a reasonably intimate application area, WBANs have found their primary usefulness to be in the medical arena. The demographics of the population of the world show it to be ageing fast as the baby boom generation moves up through the years. Around the world, governments and other interested agencies have begun to plan for the inevitable peak in the requirements for the care of the aged population. One potential advantage in dealing with the thorny problem they face is to use technology to leverage the effect of the limited resources they can bring to bear. Clinical areas such as Cancer Detection, Cardiovascular Diseases, Asthma Mitigation and Sleep Disorders can be positively impacted not to mention the broader areas the implants and wearable medical devices can bring to bear. Reaching further out, WBANs can also make a significant difference to the remote control of medical devices via telemedicine systems.

In short, the assistance provided by using WBANs is extremely significant however the adoption of the technology into the specific field has had to overcome some broad and significant challenges. These challenges can be broadly described as Architecture, Power Consumption, Data Rate and Security.

Lets take a look at how WBAN technology can be applied to the UK in the specific field of heart disease. Clearly heart disease is a leading cause of death for a significant percentage of the population. Appropriate and timely monitoring can prove to be a real asset in dealing with this condition and it is in this way that the benefits of WBANs can really be brought to bear. Systems have been developed such that, by the use of non intrusive miniaturised sensors, ambulatory monitoring of the most important metrics can be continued in real time as the patients go about their routines. The ubiquity of high speed mobile data networks in the UK means that, for the most part, this monitoring can continue uninterrupted for as long as is necessary. By carefully monitoring these vital signs, trained medical professionals can interpret the presence of problems, monitor deterioration and if necessary perform interventions.

In order to gain traction and mainstream acceptance in the United Kingdom, certain key issues had to be addressed. A hierarchical model for the architecture of WBANs has been developed such that  the devices are controlled by a central appliance known as a personal server. The model is flexible enough that it can be adapted to more specifically suit its use in specialised places such as a hospital or conversely broader scope areas out in the field.

Devices have had to be developed specifically for use in such an intimate way such that they do not exceed power outputs that are considered harmful to localised regions within the human body. A key measure known as the Specific Absorption Rate must not exceed the limits set out by various legislatures in the regions within which they operate. Institutional approval must be sought for each device that will operate in this specialised area. Furthermore, these specialised appliances, be they sensors or other devices must operate to very stringent limitations on their power consumption.

In order for the system to work within the context of a 21st century professional medical care system the governance framework around which the application is set out must be considerable. Lives can be lost if the system fails so it becomes imperative that systems failure modes and their consequences be carefully managed. Where there is potential for loss of life or serious non fatal consequences, steps must be in place to ensure that systems failure cannot take place.

pavAnother extremely important aspect which must be carefully managed is that of the security of medical WBAN systems. It almost goes without saying that, with systems that intrude into the most intimate areas of the human body that are charged with managing and effecting healthcare decisions, security is one of the most paramount concerns. Conventional network security, whilst strong, is by no means impenetrable. Appropriate systems of management, policy and operation need to run covalently with the key building blocks of security such as authentication, integrity and confidentiality. Complex encryption systems place demands upon processing as well as data rate overhead which serve to pull the design of the equipment away from the miniature. Broadly speaking therefore, a robust system must mesh together and operate flawlessly for the system to meet its mandatory requirements. Such standards require a strong governing entity to overarch the system and maintain its operation. The UK is well placed to provide this governing body and manage standards such as is necessary.

Looking contrastingly at Uzbekistan, where heart disease is a more significant issue, it becomes necessary to consider whether the resources available can ensure the necessary standards are met. It becomes perhaps necessary to rethink whether any of the standards which are necessarily adopted in an idealised situation such as is available in the UK can be relaxed. Standards of governance and their implementation and control require significant budget. Given the contrasting fiscal limitations in play in Uzbekistan one wonders perhaps if such actions and activities are appropriate.

In addition, looking at the figures for the penetration of networked data communication within the country, one also wonders if the infrastructure is in place to support such ambitions. One of the key unique selling points of the technology and its application is the ability for it to continue to operate with near ubiquity. In a country where the telecommunications infrastructure renders this nigh on impossible, it would seem to render the argument in favour of using the technology moot. Looking at both arguments it is therefore probably not a suitable technology for use in countries such as Uzbekistan with insufficient network infrastructure and very limited health budgets, tempting though the technology is.

WBANs present health professionals with unique opportunities to enhance medical care to levels previously unheard of and probably unachievable. With proper and effective management systems in place they represent a fantastic fillip to the broader toolset of medical practitioners. They will undoubtedly play an increasing part in health systems for many years to come.

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