It is safe to say that healthcare is ready for the Internet of Things. Why? Because it already has a lot of technology that can benefit from it. These things range from simple thermometers, blood pressure monitors, and bathroom scales, to high-definition orthoscans, blood gas analyzers, and cardiac monitors—all of which are outfitted with digital sensors, and each of which provides valuable data. What many of them lack, however, is the Internet portion—the communication and software pieces that would enable them to readily exchange their data with one another and with centralized healthcare systems, giving caregivers a more comprehensive and timely view of the patient’s health.
But that’s starting to change. After all, different IoT configurations are already reducing operating costs, increasing efficiency, and creating new revenue streams in such diverse industries as logistics, retail and manufacturing, with other applications, including autonomous vehicles, on the near horizon. Certainly healthcare, which is among the nation’s largest industries, and one that is experiencing its own serious issues with cost, staffing, and customer experience, should be a prime candidate for IoT solutions.
Indeed, the market for healthcare industry IoT has been steadily gaining ground over the past 10 years, following enactment of the 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, designed to stimulate adoption of electronic health records and allied technologies. Developments since that time have included a combination of continuing advances in technology, increased investment by developers as well as healthcare systems, and the expanding range of IoT applications in disease monitoring. Chronic diseases in particular, including diabetes, asthma, obesity, heart failure, and COPD—all of which appear to be increasing—are ideal candidates for the monitoring capabilities that IoT brings to medicine.
Digital medicine is not only relatively new, it is still struggling to establish best professional practices and standards of care comparable to those of more conventional medical procedure formats. But its potential is tremendous and, for many, both in and outside of medicine, it represents the fulfillment of a long-held vision for the field of healthcare in much the same way that commercial flight did for transportation buffs a century ago. It means bringing healthcare to you instead of bringing you somewhere else to receive healthcare. A recent report by Parks associates revealed that even as far back as 2017, 60% of U.S. households with broadband access were already keenly interested in receiving remote care that could take place online or by phone.
Many companies are now starting to see the value of IoT in healthcare, including Amazon. In August, for example, the company, introduced a new health tracking system for under $100 that makes 3-D scans of your body, analyzes when your voice sounds stressed, and suggests which workout is most effective for you. Amazon is also trying to integrate information from their health technologies into electronic medical records so that, at least in principle, a patient with a heart condition could regularly share electrocardiogram readings with their doctor, no matter how far apart they may be.
Amazon is continuing to dip their toes in healthcare and have partnered with several healthcare companies to enable consumers and employees to leverage Alexa for healthcare uses. For example, Cigna employees can manage health improvement goals and earn wellness incentives using the technology; and people who use Omron Healthcare’s blood pressure monitor, HeartGuide, can track their readings through Alexa.
While the promise of healthcare IoT sometimes extends into the realm of near-science fiction, including robots guided by artificial intelligence, using data analytics, and performing life-saving procedures on patients in distress half a world away, not all of its applications are quite so dramatic. In fact, most IoT applications at this time are highly focused point solutions involving such mundane tasks as SMS appointment reminders, mobile patient check-in, virtual waiting rooms, and video consultations. In other words, many of the healthcare applications of IoT technology don’t involve medicine at all.
But many do. One software developer groups the major categories of medical devices into three broad clusters: External wearable devices, implanted medical devices and stationary medical devices.
- Wearables, which include devices such as blood pressure, EKG, temperature, glucose, and oxygen level monitoring, produce data that can be used for telemedicine as well as inpatient monitoring. Smartphones with various health-related applications and sensors form a growing part of that category. In addition to providing real-time information, they offer data collected in a real-world environment, giving doctors more accurate insight into their patients’ lives for better decisions and improved outcomes.
- Implanted devices include infusion pumps, pacemakers, neurostimulators and glucose monitors. In addition to collecting and transmitting data, these devices deliver medication, stimulation, or other treatments, as well as reminders and warnings, directly to the patient. They can be of particular value in reducing the incidence of strokes, heart failures or diabetic comas.
- Stationary medical devices tend to be the heavy-duty instruments such as imaging devices like X-ray and MRI machines that are found only in hospitals or other clinical settings. Certain lab tests and medication management systems also fall into this category. But here again, they are devices which are capable of both collecting and transmitting data to other networked devices for analysis and treatment guidance.
While each of these technologies is focused on one aspect or another of human health, they share a common concern with digital technologies used in retail, finance, government, and essentially every other segment of the economy: Security. Not only is health-related data one of a person’s most sensitive types of private information, its confidentiality is also protected by law both in the United States, by the HIPPA rules, in Europe by GDPR, as well as in other parts of the world. Protection against data loss is a top priority for healthcare IoT, particularly at a time when hospitals have emerged as a new focus of cyberattacks, but the growing complexity of electronic networks and the gap in data handling skills by healthcare workers presents constant risks of unintentional exposure and impedes the growth of connected systems.
Thus far, most of the malicious attacks on hospitals and clinics have involved ransomware, where the organization’s files have been penetrated, encrypted, and held hostage for a ransom payment. But more malevolent scenarios are also possible, particularly as more critical lifesaving equipment is connected to the network—equipment that could conceivably be shut down in an attack.
Automation may prove to be the key to a secure health organization, according to security researcher Remesh Ramachandran. Particularly in the constantly changing environments of hospitals, where the evolving mix of connections, permissions, and rules is always in flux, manually securing the growing number of IoT devices can be overwhelming, expensive, and prone to error. Security automation software, perhaps under the supervision of a third-party specialist, may be a workable solution in many cases.
Whether it is or not, history’s long arc of innovation bends toward the increased adoption of these connected digital devices—tools that will be instrumental in delivering cost-effective medical treatment and improving the experience for both providers and patients.