A Brief Guide to Bluetooth iBeacons and It Can be Used in Healthcare

There’s been a lot of talk about iBeacons in our office recently so we thought we’d put together an article to explore very simply what they are, how they work, and how they can be used in healthcare environments.

A guide to iBeacons

So, what are iBeacons?

Well, really iBeacons are just Apple’s own brand of a communications standard based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. In fact, this protocol is now supported on most major smartphones – Android, iOS and Windows Phone – so the terms iBeacons and Bluetooth Beacons are often used interchangeably.

Ok then, so what is a Bluetooth Beacon?

A beacon is a small hardware device that wirelessly broadcasts a radio signal at regular intervals (usually once or twice a second) that can be detected by nearby devices containing Bluetooth receivers such as a smartphone, which is used for accurate positioning indoors (vs. the GPS). For e.g. their applications include indoor navigation, location based marketing, location based customer service, clienteling and personal assistance (see more below). They have a typical signal range of around 100m to 200m (or even more depending on the devices and surrounding environment).

Due to their use of Bluetooth Low Energy technology, they consume very little power so they usually have small self-contained cell batteries which enables them to function independently of external power sources for months or even years.

There are an increasing variety of beacons and hardware vendors now available on the market, and unit prices are dropping all of the time – some can be purchased in volume for as low as just a few dollars each.

How do they work?

iBeacons are designed to repeatedly ‘advertise’ a small sequence of identifying information:

  • Unique device identifier – Typically a code that uniquely identifies a vendor or product
  • Major and Minor values – These are numeric values that can be set whatever the application needs – for example, a code to represent a site (e.g. Store location, customer number etc.) or identify a point of interest within a site (e.g. Bathroom, Garage, Warehouse, Lobby, Mona Lisa etc.)

As nearby smartphones detect the presence of a beacon, they receive this data and then a variety of actions can be taken within any installed mobile applications if they recognize any of the identifying information, such as: data collection, push notifications or on-screen alerts.

The strength of the beacons signal can also be detected, and actions can be taken accordingly when it is in one of 3 ranges:

  • Close – within a few centimeters
  • Nearby – within a few meters
  • Far – greater than a few meters away

iBeacons customized functionality

What’s so good about them?

  • They are cheap, and getting cheaper!
  • They do not need external power sources (so work even in power cuts)
  • Some varieties are waterproof, so can be used inside, outside or underwater
  • Easy to install – in many cases just stick them to the wall!
  • Simple to integrate into mobile applications

Sounds great – but what can they be used for?

Well, here’s a few ideas!

  • Navigating buildings and spaces – use beacons as a virtual map or show helpful information
  • Indoor and underwater Geo-locating – GPS works great outside, but inside a multi-storey building beacons can help
  • Analyze how people move through a space to identify footfall, hotspots or heat-maps
  • Transport – smart bus stops, underground stations
  • Present information in context to location – show information about the nearby museum piece that is being admired
  • Give your visitors live information – queuing times, online bookings, special offers
  • Advertising – provide special offers to frequent visitors
  • Smart signage – auto translate advertisements or visitor information based on smartphone settings
  • Tracking assets and stock – follow the movement of large items around warehouse or hospitals
  • Distributed networks – some newer types of beacon are even able to communicate with each other to act as wireless access points
  • Healthcare environments – access authorization, patient tracking and monitoring

Smart watch and iBeacons connectivity for healthcare

iBeacons in healthcare

Within the healthcare setting, we have been using iBeacons in different applications, primarily integrating with wearable technology in clinical trials setting. In this initiative, iBeacons allow connectivity towards the technology worn by the patients, which enables the clinicians to track Alzheimer patients whereabouts if/when they go missing. These connectivity also allows push notifications (an element of gamification) to be sent out for immediate alerts. This constant connectivity and ability to produce the data to clinicians in real-time allows quick actions to be taken if the patient is out of their safe zone.

There are so many other ways to use iBeacons in healthcare setting. iBeacons has the potential to improve processes in hospitals and home care. For e.g. one could place a beacon at a patient’s home or home care. When the doctor or nurse pay a visit, they would get all the information they need as they arrive. Hence, the beacons could also help track visits, making sure the patient is getting enough attention.

iBeacon can also provides a mapping solution within a hospital setting. One issue that seems relevant is almost all hospitals and medical centers are way finding for patients and families. This issue can potentially be solved with iBeacon. With the hospital app open on a phone or tablet, the iBeacon would recognize the location of the patient and guide the visitor through the building on a map.

iBeacon has the potential to speed up clinical care and access to patient data. While security and HIPAA will stand as challenges to a speedy rollout, patient rooms at hospitals could be outfitted with iBeacon and upon entry to a room, a doctor’s iPad coupld immediately load the patient record on the tablet. This application would speed patient care and increase the effectiveness of clinical staff.

Beacons will soon be everywhere, and the capabilities of beacons will undoubtedly also improve over time as will security and longevity. The uses for this technology are really only just getting started!