Remote Patient Monitoring Device Options: Cellular Vs. Bluetooth

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by Lucy Lamboley

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on the value of digital health and its ability to effectively engage patients and deliver care. The widespread adoption of digital health is likely to change the way healthcare is delivered here in the United States after the health crisis is behind us. 

While not a new concept, one of the most exciting changes is the increasing usage of new remote patient monitoring (RPM) technologies. In an effort to keep the most vulnerable patients healthy amidst social distancing guidelines, practitioners and insurers like Medicare are finding that RPM technology offers a good solution to keeping patients with chronic health conditions home and safe while still effectively monitoring their disease progression. 

Is Remote Patient Monitoring the Right Answer for Your Practice and Patients?

Before the pandemic, Medicare announced the expansion in its guidelines to include the provision of remote patient monitoring services conducted by clinical staff under general supervision of a medical provider. As opposed to the 'direct supervision' standard, 'general supervision' allows for much more flexibility in structuring an RPM program.

Medicare further clarified that both remote patient monitoring and chronic care management (CCM) services can be billed separately within the same month for a single patient if each service (RPM and CCM) has met the minimum time threshold requirement independently.  

While many practices worry that new technology can overwhelm their older patients, studies published by the Pew Research Center identified that a record number of senior citizens are using electronic devices and seem to be comfortable doing so. In 2017, more than 80% of Americans aged 65 to 69 said they go online regularly. We can confidently assume this number has grown over the past few years. 

It’s apparent that American senior citizens are adapting to new technologies without missing a beat. Medical practices considering the addition of remote patient monitoring to their list of service offerings should feel comfortable that their targeted population will be receptive to the new technology. 

Technology Trends in Remote Patient Monitoring 

Once you’ve decided you would like to design a remote patient monitoring program for your practice, how do you determine what type of monitoring device(s) would be best for your practice? With new choices emerging regularly, finding the best technology for patients can be overwhelming. Healthcare technology companies are developing amazing new devices that can track patient vital statistics from anywhere and everywhere. When researching your options, two questions you will want to answer are: 1) How do these devices work? and 2) How does the information get safely transmitted to you as their practitioner? These devices can monitor and capture everything from heart rate and blood pressure, glucose levels, and even weight, and this data can be transmitted to their practitioner in one of two ways: Over a cellular network or via Bluetooth technology. 

Cellular Remote Patient Monitoring Vs. Bluetooth Remote Patient Monitoring

There are benefits and limitations to cellular and Bluetooth remote patient monitoring technologies, and it is important to understand which technology solution is best for your practice, patients, and healthcare providers. 

First, cellular remote patient monitoring devices collect and transmit patient health data over the same networks used by our cellphones. Companies that offer cellular-connected devices typically partner with major cell phone companies to use their widespread networks. 

On the other hand, Bluetooth remote patient monitoring devices transmit patient data over short-range wireless connections to devices that can connect to the internet. While these technologies are typically deemed secure and reliable, there are pros and cons of each to consider. 

Advantages and Limitations of Cellular Remote Patient Monitoring Devices

Advantages: 

  • Cellular connected remote patient monitoring devices can transmit patient health data from anywhere the cellular service provider can reach. 
  • The cellular option offers the ability to record and transmit patient data in real-time, allowing the patient’s healthcare team to receive almost immediate alerts concerning any health changes. 
  • Some cellular-connected RPM devices can provide two-way communications, meaning the healthcare team can reach out to the patient through the RPM device itself.
  • Cellular RPM devices are easier to use for patients who might not be comfortable with hi-tech gadgets because they are ready to use out of the box with no further connection setup required.

Limitations: 

  • Cellular RPM devices are limited to the cellular company’s service area, which may be an issue for Americans who live in rural areas. 
  • There are higher costs associated with a cellular network connection and device components.
  • There is a potential for loss of communication and the ability to transmit data if the cellular network has an outage.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Bluetooth Remote Patient Monitoring Devices 

Advantages: 

  • Bluetooth remote patient monitoring devices use short-range wireless connections to transmit data to an internet-connected device. Patients can transmit health data via the internet to their healthcare team without any concern of cellular network availability if they have internet access and a Bluetooth-capable device.
  • Allows for a wider selection of devices that can be purchased more readily online and in stores.
  • Patients may be able to use the devices they already have and brands they know and trust.
  • Bluetooth devices are cost-effective as they require no cellular data connection.
  • Consumers are becoming more comfortable with Bluetooth devices, with the number of Bluetooth device shipments continuing to increase year over year.

Limitations:  

  • Bluetooth connections (particularly those considered “Bluetooth low energy”) can sometimes be “discovered,” meaning that the transmission of health data over the short-range wireless connection could arouse security concerns.
  • There is no provision for two-way communications.
  • Bluetooth can be difficult to set up and may require connections to be set up more than once if a device needs to update. Pairing issues between devices and phones may frustrate patients and lead to more requests for technical support.
  • Patients need their own access to the internet to transmit their health data to their healthcare team. This connection must be reliable or there is a risk that the data will not be transmitted or done so in a timely manner.

The Right Remote Patient Monitoring Device Choice for Your Practice and Patients

It’s obvious that the landscape of healthcare in America is rapidly changing and that technological evolution is catching on like wildfire. Among these new technological trends, remote patient monitoring is proving to be advantageous for patients and lucrative for practices, but choosing the right RPM device for your specific program can be overwhelming. 

While both types of remote patient monitoring devices — cellular and Bluetooth — offer their own set of benefits, we believe cellular-connected devices have an edge when it comes to Medicare patients. They offer an easier-to-use, all-encompassing service if there are no connectivity barriers. Set up is simple for patients of any technical skill level. This is critical as it not only reduces the need for practices to provide ongoing technical support, but any challenges patients encounter with using an RPM device will decrease their satisfaction with the experience and increase the likelihood that they will choose not to continue with the service or motivate them to seek a simpler solution. 

Although we generally recommend cellular connectivity, many practices have found success in offering a mix of connectivity options. Bluetooth devices deliver noteworthy advantages and may be worth offering to tech-savvy patients while defaulting to cellular devices. This strategy requires that you have a flexible remote patient monitoring platform, but allows you to benefit from both connection options while mitigating the risks on a patient-by-patient basis.

Ultimately, since cellular devices can report patient vital statistics faster without needing to rely on whether patients have reliable internet access and are comfortable troubleshooting any operational issues, they represent the best option if practices want to offer and support only one type of device. The cellular option will help create a more proactive healthcare relationship between patients and their practitioners, which will ultimately enhance wellness and revenue.

For more information on remote patient monitoring, see this comprehensive guide.

RPM Billing Guide

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