Photo credit: todaytesting.com
The purpose of this article is to take a look at the benefits, applications, and challenges of the Internet of Healthcare Things (IoHT). Like any good story, it starts with people. The global population is aging and the number of chronic illnesses is on the rise. The current state of the healthcare industry is insufficient to cater to people’s growing healthcare requirements and (in the US) is in a state of great despair.
The cost of basic healthcare has become out of reach for a significantly large section of people in the US. The numbers of the “healthcare unserved” are increasing dramatically as people age, but IoHT has the potential to change that.
Here’s how the Internet of Things (IoT) is revolutionizing healthcare — and leveraging other technologies — to create entirely new healthcare delivery solutions that are simultaneously better, cheaper, and faster.
Monitor and Report
Real-time, in-place monitoring of a patient’s condition is now possible with smart medical devices connected to UIB’s UnificationEngine®, mobile apps, local gateways, and mesh networks. Connected devices can collect, analyze, and send medical data directly to healthcare providers for immediate review — and action. This ability for real-time patient consulting and treatment can reduce the frequency and severity of the negative outcomes of heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and many other diseases and chronic illnesses.
Information from IoHT devices including blood pressure; oxygen and blood sugar levels; weight; and ECGs reduces costs while improving patient outcomes and the overall quality of care. Collected over secure cloud networks, the information helps medical teams to provide the best possible care whether they are standing at the patient’s bedside or are a thousand miles away.
Making ‘dumb’ equipment ‘smart’
IoHT is often surrounded by closed source and legacy equipment that:
- Was never designed to communicate externally;
- Is difficult to connect; and
- Has proprietary interfaces that prevent data sharing
Before IoHT, to connect healthcare equipment and devices, connectivity often required significant capital investments and/or third-party services that were never designed for large-scale, system-wide connectivity.
Much of the medical equipment that lacks connectivity can now leverage low-cost, low maintenance wireless networks and RS232-, RS485-, and USB-based protocols. This means a healthcare facility can purchase an off-the-shelf hardware module (e.g., Toradex), write their own firmware, and gain connectivity with all of their legacy devices.
IoT revolutionizes analytics on three different fronts: descriptive, predictive, and edge. While healthcare connectivity drives more visibility in terms of discoverability of information, the type of analytics that was restricted to mobile sensory data can now easily be expanded to a virtually unlimited number of other data sources.
Legacy healthcare companies can use connected bands (a.k.a., “IoHT Fitbits”) on patients. Using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), these bands can be connected to pill dispensers, geofenced to set boundaries, and paired with other patient safety systems. The new data they provide is incredibly valuable for allowing doctors, caregivers, and patients to make better decisions faster, enabling predictive analytics with far greater accuracy. And while lesser known, fast, reliable communications from analytics at the edge is already saving lives around the world.
High Agility + Low Cost
Apart from costs and connectivity, gaining agility in healthcare is one of the top concerns for C-level healthcare execs. Before the framework of IoT, hardware and equipment manufacturers built equipment for either generic or highly specific processes. This made it difficult and expensive to implement any process-related changes. Experiments were just too costly.
In comparison, the prototype- and testing- based IoT product development process was designed to facilitate fast, cheap testing and experimentation. When user testing is complete, design specs are generated and further assessed for optimization. How fast? How cheap? Speed increases can be 10x and costs can be 1% of what was previously possible.
IoHT Use Cases
Now that we have looked into some of the benefits of IoHT, here is how it’s actually being used.
To date, healthcare practitioners have been limited in the fluids they effectively analyze. IoHT allows them to add perspiration to their diagnostic arsenal. With the rallying cry that “sweat is the new blood,” GraphWear is developing wearables that analyze your sweat, a more convenient and cost-effective way to collect critical health data than drawing blood.
With Apple AirPods’ new Live Listen feature being just one example, hearables are not just giving real-time access to virtual assistants, but completely changing the way people with hearing loss can interact with the world. Wireless hearables are already helping millions around the world through their smartphones, but the coming extended ranges and mesh capabilities will only make hearables better and more helpful.
Anyone who has had to experience the alternative is thrilled at the new alternative of swallowing a pill-sized sensor. It’s not an exaggeration to call ingestibles a modern science marvel. An ingestible sensor is not only less invasive but again less costly and are finding use in both diagnosing disease and monitoring medication’s impact on the body.
Once more sounding like science fiction, moodables, devices used to enhance patient’s well-being are becoming reality. Head mounted, these mood-altering devices send low-intensity current to our brain to augment and in some cases even replace anti-depressant medications.
It may not sound as flashy, but healthcare charting can reduce a doctor’s workload by 15 or more hours a week. IoT-enabled devices and dashboards make patient data more accessible, automate redundant tasks, reduce errors, and most importantly, allow doctors to focus on what’s most important, their patients.
The numbers of smart medication dispensers have exploded. The latest generation dispensers are automated and connected. Connected to the cloud, dispensers are connected to patients, their healthcare providers, their caregivers, their insurance companies, and their other devices. Often sold pre-filled and pre-programmed according to the physician’s instructions, dispensers can operate automatically for weeks, even adjusting dosages per the doctor’s instructions based on the patient’s real-time condition.
The number one challenge of IoHT is security. All players in the ecosystem are focused on keeping new, low-powered devices safe and secure from outside attack. This is also the number one challenge because of the fragmentation of protocols and standards. The lack of interoperability hurts scalability so we expect to see continued work on data ownership and protection.
IoHT is just getting started. Every morning, we wake up to new advancements in how IoT is being used to improve healthcare delivery and outcomes. Cost and accessibility continue to be powerful drivers accelerating research.
About the Author
When he’s not writing about IoT and AI, Parikshit Joshi leads the IoT and Data Science teams at Simform. In his free time, he works on the next generation of AI to build fully autonomous, smart machines.