Machine-to-Machine technology (M2M) isn’t a new topic to the SmartVan — last year we spoke with CRM expert Denis Pombriant about how Coca-Cola and General Motors are using M2M to seamlessly report data from remote machines back to the company. However, this technology is relatively new to the healthcare industry, where it’s poised to overhaul how doctors deliver care to patients and how technicians service medical devices.

To gain some more insight on how the technology works, we spoke with Bob Ragusa, SVP of global operations at Accuray — a company that provides radiation oncology solutions that utilize M2M — or in Ragusa’s words, “remote diagnostics.”

How does Accuray use M2M technology?

We have large capital equipment in radiation oncology, so we have multimillion dollar machines deployed globally. With that we have the capability to remotely interrogate those systems. In an automated fashion, they send back key barometric data about the various subsystems and operating conditions within them.

How does this help you assess the functionality of these machines?

There are a number of levels. One is in a proactive manner. We can be alerted prior to an actual failure, so someone remotely can interrogate it and understand that sometime in, say a two-week period, a certain element is going to fail or move outside of specification. Even if it’s not a hard failure. That allows us to interact with the customer in a far more seamless way. We can then make the issue part of a scheduled maintenance, as opposed to an unscheduled and interruptive maintenance. We can often do that at off hours so that the downtime impact on the customer is either low or none.

For example, when a wireless signal is sent to a technician, either remotely or in the room, the technician doesn’t need to take the covers off the system. If it’s a rotating system you’d have to take the machine apart to figure out what’s wrong, but the fact that you already have signals being measured onboard or sent wirelessly, they can diagnose a problem more efficiently and it leaves a much better feel from a customer satisfaction standpoint.

Can Accuray fix machines remotely or do you still need to send a technician into the field?

We have something we call “remote resolution.” Somewhere between 20% to 30% of the time we can look at the system and resolve it remotely. We’re able to view the system and the compute platforms and be able to remotely manipulate the system to get the malfunction to go away.

We started off with a centralized model, where we’d have a few highly trained people who would be able to look at the various signals and data coming off the remote links and make diagnostic calls and then be able to direct the service team on how to proceed next.

What we’re now moving towards is having the Field Service Engineers (FSE) have access to the same data and be able to do that for their machines on-site. If a FSE can handle calls remotely, they can increase the total number of machines they can handle.

Can big, tough fixes be done remotely or are they generally done by a tech in the field?

The less complicated pieces that need to be fixed are done remotely. Even in the complex issues, you’re alerted automatically to all the elements that either already failed or potentially will fail, so the service person can be armed going out there with the correct parts.

M2M is becoming a trend in healthcare, and forecasts predict it will expand in the coming years. Do you agree? What’s the future of M2M in healthcare?

I’ve been in the life science world for a while and all the companies I’ve worked with have had some level of remote diagnostic capability. The level and depth that you can go to today versus five to 10 years ago is radically deeper and less expensive. I suspect you’re going to continue to see more and more diagnostic capabilities get put out to the machines, and deeper levels of granularity so that you can really pinpoint things.

Are there any technological hurdles needed M2M needs to jump over to become more widespread?

One thing is getting companies to understand that there’s a payback for investing in it. Most of the technology is largely there at this point, but there is the element of getting the customer comfortable with you having that access to their machines.