By Liz Kwo, MD, MBA, MPH - Chief Medical Officer, Everly Health
The use of digital technology in healthcare has extended in recent years taking the shape of smart medical devices used at home, of remote monitoring systems or wearable devices.
IoT (Internet of Things) is becoming a powerful tool that supports the unburdening of healthcare systems everywhere, especially during the current times.
The statistics regarding the IoT current and future impact in healthcare are encouraging:
The millions of smart devices connected with each other by internet collect huge amounts of information from users and their environment.
After a shorter or longer journey, through wireless connections, gateways or cloud environments, this data finally reaches care givers, clinicians or other healthcare professionals authorized to access it. In most cases, the data is used not only for analyzing the health status of patients, but also for developing solutions to healthcare problems, while optimizing existing processes to design new technologies that improve outcomes.
One important advantage when using IoT in healthcare is that stakeholders can obtain real-time insights about patients, which promotes a better decision-making process. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are enabling the comprehension of data collected, by sorting which information is relevant in the present and which could become relevant in the future.
Another practical application of IoT in healthcare is their incorporation in the physical assets that reside in a medical facility, either ER, national hospital or local clinic. For instance, having IOT as part of the lighting, air conditioning or safety equipment that exist in medical units ensures a better control for unit operators over the safety, optimization and performance. This translates into improved patient experience: adjusting the light and temperature settings in an ICU can support the recovery and comfort of patients and also impact the financial performance of the unit such as decreasing utility expenses.
Built-in sensors can also improve the operating performance of these units: they inform staff about bed availability, track medical personnel inside the unit and provide real-time insights about patient status while creating a positive patient experience. Examples include measurements to detect and adjust medical device compounds, high vapor pressure or low water solubility such as loose anesthetic gases or smoke plumes which have not been removed properly. These volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be a threat to the life of patients from medical units, hence the use of IoT to decrease this risk is invaluable.
The long-term goal of IoT in healthcare is to become an essential element of predictive maintenance, maintenance procedures carried out on a regular basis. IoT helps implement Remote Patients Monitoring (RPM) across the country and the replacement of in-person medical visits with remote care can lead to savings of $300 billion for healthcare industry, every year. IOT has the promise to improve the efficiency of treatments by stimulating patients to follow their prescribed treatments and recommended doses with the help of “smart pills” equipped with built-in sensors that can send data to smart devices, once these pills are swallowed.
Cost savings in medical care are possible also through the use of smart devices that allow a better self-management of patients’ health: smart inhalers, smart watches, wearable biosensors are among the devices that enable care givers to collect data and monitor the health outcomes of patients remotely. These devices allow for prescription of treatments and medication without in-person visits and enable fast intervention in emergencies to decrease the risk of severe affections and avoid preventable deaths.
Great benefits bring also great challenges. Without understanding these challenges, the implementation of Internet of Things cannot be a successful process. The most significant challenges are:
Organizations are often reluctant to implementing IoT due to high costs implied. And for good reason, since there are many aspects to take into consideration: workflows, procedures, legal requirements, industry and market specifics, staff adjustment, impact of transition to IoT. Despite all this, for healthcare organizations to survive in the fast-changing market and to make a positive difference, many are taking small steps to achieve benefits: improved operation performance, cost savings, better profitability, etc.
A consideration of IOT is to build sufficient investment in cybersecurity to prevent exposure to cyber-attacks. Since medical devices are connected with the internet, hackers can access the data collected and stored by these devices, which would make all patients’ medical records hostages of hackers looking for ransom. Companies must be aware that without proper security to protect the data their devices are collecting, patients cannot rely on the services they provide and hence will not be willing to use these services, no matter how beneficial they would be.
Data collected in real-time from hundreds or thousands of smart devices that are remote or located in a medical unit results into an amount of information that will be difficult to filter, asses and store. This can generate additional costs and require additional resources for companies. If improperly managed, this data can become not only useless but also a liability. But if data is managed properly, with the help of AI algorithms, it can prove invaluable to companies that know how to organize it. Companies that start this process must be aware that it will be a long one and it will require resources and work.
If manufacturers integrate into a non-medical device too many features with medical purposes, these transformed devices might lack the accuracy of devices that were designed from the very beginning for medical purposes. The lack of accuracy can result into over-treating affections that are not really there or are not as serious as the applied treatment. However, manufacturers and those who welcome the transformation of usual gadgets into medical purposed devices can argue that the features added can prevent escalation of various affections provided their symptoms are detected in early stage of those affections.
So far, IoT implementation has not been aligned in any industry to a common set of rules or regulations. This means that IoT implementation varies from region to region and industry to industry. This can seriously affect healthcare, a segment whose decreased efficiency could take a big toll on patient welfare.
Many IT infrastructures that exist in medical units across the country are outdated and cannot support integration with IoT devices. This translates into additional costs that need to be allocated for updating processes and for implementing modern and IoT-compatible software. Mobile networks and highly efficient wireless networks, alongside modern technologies can make this integration smoother and ensure IoT will perform as per specifications.
Data privacy is perhaps the most serious challenge that IoT has to face. Patients who use devices designed for medical use such as pulse oximeters and wearable biosensors have shared data with healthcare professionals, but the natural question is: how much can the users of such devices trust their medical data will not be used for other purposes?
This considerable challenge can be addressed only if manufacturing companies of smart devices understand that they need to gain user trust in regard to protecting the privacy of their data. This means the data collected by medical devices from users will be shared and used only in the purposes stated and with the entire awareness of users about what they disclose when they use this type of devices. With more smart devices with medical purposes reaching more users, it’s important that companies provide legal guarantees regarding the clarity and transparency of how collected data will be used.
At the same time, users have to make sure they understand what type of data they are sharing before doing so. Medical records and medical history is sensitive data and even if the benefits of tracking health data could be significant for patients, giving up rights to data privacy should not be sacrificed in return.
IoT will gain more terrain in healthcare especially since more efficient technologies - such as 5G coverage - are becoming more available to more people. Since IoT can provide infinite improvements that impact care giving, patients welfare and operational performance, many companies will implement this strategy in order to differentiate themselves on the market.