The Future Language of Medical Devices?

Super-secret writing is written all over that medical device you have implanted inside…

TECG image1he revenues from remote patient monitoring are calculated in billions of dollars worldwide. According to the National Institutes of Health, mHealth — mobile health or telemedicine — “has the potential to be a transformative force” and “to change when, where, and how healthcare is provided.”  This is also an important opportunity for medical device manufacturers to bring medical care into households. The possibilities to remotely monitor patients’ vital signs (for example, through recently cleared by FDA Mobile Heart Monitor for iPhone) are revolutionary and life-saving. However, this involves electronic transmission of medical data, which, like any digitized information, is vulnerable to hackers and thieves.

Under the new Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), your personal Protected Health Information has become more secure with the expanded obligations of health-care providers to keep it safe. The Department of Health and Human Services advises health-care professionals to use encryption to “render unsecured protected health information unusable, unreadable, or indecipherable to unauthorized individuals.”

A variety of data encryption software already is available and more is being developed. For instance, scientists from Australia have found a new way to encrypt patient’s information inside electronically transmitted electrocardiograms using steganography, which literally means “concealed writing,” a technique that hides secret information inside a great excess of similar-looking information. This “spy” technique, previously used to hide information in video or audio data transmission, has been  applied to ECG recording. The results were described in a recent publication by Ibaida and Khalil in IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, “Wavelet Based ECG Steganography for Protecting Patient Confidential Information in Point-of-Care Systems,” featured in IEEE Spectrum, by Lily Hay Newman:

Previous research has focused on using cryptographic algorithms to keep patient information confidential when sending physiological signals. But these strategies have significant computational overhead because both the physiological signal and the identifying information must be encrypted on one end and decrypted on the other. Steganography is less computationally intensive because only the hidden data is encrypted. Another important aspect of the technology demonstrated by the RMIT researchers is that the steganographic process does not distort the ECG data. This is significant because shielding a patient’s identity should not come at the expense of an accurate diagnosis.

According to mathematical analysis, steganographic coding is very secure and almost impossible to break, and researchers are planning to expand it to other biomedical signals, and incorporate it into medical monitoring systems. Polymer Solutions is actively involved in testing of the medical devices, which might be “speaking” a totally new language in the not-so-remote future.

Source: “mHealth – Mobile Health Technologies”, NIH
Source: “AliveCor iPhone Mobile ECG Device Helps Simplify Remote ECG Monitoring”,, March 15, 2013
Source: “The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Omnibus Final Rule Summary”, September 23, 2013
Source: “Guidance to Render Unsecured Protected Health Information Unusable, Unreadable, or Indecipherable to Unauthorized Individuals”, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Source: “Secure data transmission using video Steganography”, 2011 IEEE International Conference on Electro/Information Technology (EIT), 15-17 May 2011
Source: “Audio Steganography Used for Secure Data Transmission” , Proceedings of International Conference on Advances in Computing, Volume 174, 2012, pp. 699-706
Source: “Wavelet Based ECG Steganography for Protecting Patient Confidential Information in Point-of-Care Systems”, IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, Volume PP, Issue: 99, 21 May 2013
Source: “Hiding Data in a Heartbeat” , Lily Hay Newman, IEEE Spectrum, 10 Oct 2013
Image by John Bantam