A man with a heart condition must regularly track his pulse, blood pressure and other daily activity. An implanted device in his body accomplishes this from the comfort of his home and with minimal management. If the numbers look concerning, the device sends a message to his smartphone as well as to his physician. The cause — too much fast-paced walking — is diagnosed and fixed with no intervention. Throughout the entire process, the patient remains at home, never needing to pay an in-person visit to his doctor. No direct medical attention is ever needed. He is, therefore, spared the stress of transportation, waiting times, and unnecessary additional tests. This ideal medical situation is a becoming a common one among all types of patients and is made possible by the Internet of Things (IoT).
The Internet of Things — i.e., the web-enabled connection of everyday devices — has become increasingly common. Voice commands, automation and electronic interactions can accomplish daily functions that usually require manual human labor, from vacuuming the floor, sending emails, adjusting thermostats, or using Google. In 2011, before the smartwatch and fitness tracker entered the commercial market, the number of internet-connected devices worldwide outnumbered the people who possessed them. By 2020, the Federal Trade Commission predicts that there will be 50 billion internet-connected devices ranging from cars to toasters to pet monitors, cameras and many others. By 2021, Tractica predicts that wearable devices will surpass 97.6 million. The IoT’s prominence in our society is only going to increase.
The IoT has had a particularly profound impact on healthcare, as has been demonstrated by The Allure Group. In July 2018, Allure became the first Brooklyn-based skilled nursing facility to implement EarlySense, a remote monitoring system that tracks patients’ vital signs and movements courtesy of sensors placed under mattresses and pillows.
Since its introduction at the Bedford Center — one of six facilities in the Allure network — EarlySense has correlated to widespread results showing a 45% reduction in patient falls, a 60% reduction in bedsores, and an 80% reduction in code blue events.
Bringing the IoT into medicine results in patient care that is better, safer and simpler. From medical device implantation to smart sensors, the IoT can expedite the delivery of healthcare, allowing physicians to spend less time on logistics and more time treating conditions and consulting with patients. The IoT is already making a positive impact on medical care in several ways.
Communication through smart devices reduces in-person visits and lets patients manage their care from home. The IoT allows care providers to track factors like sleep, heart rate, temperature, physical activity and blood pressure, to name a few. As with the hypothetical patient above, alerts are sent to both patients and providers when there is cause for concern, allowing for fast and convenient treatment. Devices such as Audemix help reduce the manual work that usually goes into charting patient data. Powered by voice commands, it captures information and makes it immediately accessible for review, ultimately saving about 15 hours per week for the physician.
Hearing aids are now connected to Bluetooth technology, letting patients easily adjust levels to suit their specific ears. Ingestible, pill-sized sensors made by companies like Proteus Digital Health monitor medications in the body. Moodables are headpieces that monitor brain waves to combat depression. Computer Vision technology combined with drones and artificial intelligence (AI) help the visually impaired navigate physical obstacles. Contact lenses can now help monitor blood sugar for diabetes patients.
Smart Fridge by Weka ensures that vaccines are stored at the right temperatures, streamlining the process for providers and analyzing trends to improve vaccine programs. Smart inhalers are being developed by companies such as Novartis, Qualcomm and Propeller Health to help patients of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other lung conditions.
The list goes on. The IoT is rapidly improving medical technology, easing the strain on doctor and patient alike.
Before computers entered the healthcare scene, collecting patient data, storing it safely, and monitoring it took a lot of manual labor. Now, IoT technology can collect data and deliver it to the provider no matter where they are, what time it is, and what devices they use to read it.
The IoT’s improvements to reporting can save lives. Spotting problems in real-time allow for quicker and more effective treatment. Reporting emergencies through mobile apps allow medics to get information faster and provide higher quality care before the patient arrives at the hospital. Due to remote monitoring of heart failure, the Center of Connected Health Policy reported a reduction in readmission rates by 50 percent within 30 days.
Medical devices connected through Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and other technology send data to both the patient and physician. Providers can access final reports and graphs to determine a conclusion for treatment. Data collection in this form can speed up the decision-making process and significantly reduce human errors. Platforms like Kaa (KaaIoT Technologies), Azure (Microsoft), MindSphere (Siemens), and others are improving the way medical data is collected and analyzed.
If IoT in healthcare sounds like a dream rather than a reality, it almost is. In certain situations, its challenges nearly outweigh the benefits.
Security is the most pressing concern about the IoT in healthcare. The goals to collect, manage, and store data without risking hacking of confidential information are ongoing. As a nation, the United States has a long way to go before achieving a full-proof method. Companies like EHR Integration Services are working on vastly improving security in medical data storage. Even when this issue is resolved, the technology will almost require extensive training for both physicians and administrators. Many healthcare organizations don’t yet have time or resources to implement the technology, the time, or the training.
In addition to security are obstacles with accessibility. Internet access is not always readily available, particularly for many patients who are elderly, live in rural areas or are in low-income brackets. For healthcare IT departments, the sheer amount of data that comes in through connected devices can be overwhelming, also requiring a steep learning curve. Organizations that do not voluntarily adopt the IoT will likely take the longest to catch up with the bigger cities and institutions that do.
Despite the challenges, the future of healthcare will undoubtedly involve the IoT. It is certain that the IoT will revolutionize the medical industry in unprecedented ways. Improving small parts of already-existing products will bring about significant positive change in healthcare and to the lives of patients worldwide. With higher levels of intelligence, connectivity and more sophisticated gathering and monitoring of data, new scientific achievements are possible every day. The results are higher efficiency, reduced waste, and healthier lifestyles. That is just the beginning of a future where the medical systems work to their fullest potential.