Connected Life: Healthcare and the Internet of Things

Tech Tips

Connected Life: Healthcare and the Internet of Things

You have probably noticed how fast the Internet of Things is growing (many media outlets now refer to all devices connected to the internet and apps via small, low-power sensors or signaling devices by the shorthand name IoT). We see more and more smart devices that can communicate with each other, our smartphones, and services connected to the internet.

IoT devices are an important opportunity for better information and more convenience throughout our daily lives—critical benefits of the Connected Life, as we call it here at Asurion—and IoT devices will also impact every industry, including healthcare.

A McKinsey report predicts we’ll see up to 30 billion IoT objects connected by 2020—which means an annual growth rate between 15 and 20%. And a 2015 report from MarketResearch.com says healthcare IoT alone will account for $117 billion within the next four years.

We’re already starting to see the potential with wearable health and fitness devices like Fitbit and Jawbone. And today, smart watches are rapidly expanding on the information available from traditional step counters.

Healthcare applications for IoT devices face several challenges, though:

  • Comprehensive standards. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the fact that different devices use different standards to capture and share information. It’s the old VHS-Betamax debate. When new technology is created, it takes a while before manufacturers and software developers can agree on information standards. During this “wild, wild west period,” manufacturers and developers have to sort that out. We see a lot of the same issues today in smart-home devices on the market, using multiple communications protocols.
  • The right info. As healthcare providers look for more insights into patient needs, they are beginning to look at data available from fitness trackers and other devices. But some of the things devices can measure today are simply the things that are easy to count (like steps). It may take a while before healthcare research can determine how many of those easy-to-measures are also important-to-measures.
  • Too much tech. If you’ve visited a healthcare provider in the past five years, you’ve probably heard her complain about their new computer. Integrating new technology into an established healthcare workflow is hard—no matter how helpful or informative the technology is.
  • Security and access. When healthcare providers decide that certain information is both trackable with IoT devices and valuable, they have to figure out how to securely collect and store the data, as well as how to make it available at a provider’s fingertips. Particularly when it comes to healthcare data, with real (and legal) privacy issues, this is a much bigger question than figuring out the tech to sync a smartphone with a step counter to share your daily walk with your friends.
  • Confidence and accuracy. When you’re counting steps for fun, accuracy isn’t critical as long as you’re in the ballpark. But when you’re making life-and-death decisions about medications and treatment, accuracy matters a lot. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission are both looking at how to analyze safety and security issues with healthcare IoT devices.

At the same time, IoT offers many great opportunities to healthcare providers and patients. In theory, IoT devices will offer the ability to monitor health conditions more frequently than humans can (even continuously), and potentially more accurately. They can be present when it doesn’t make sense for a care provider to be with the patient (at home or on the job), and they can detect slight changes in a condition that could signal a need for urgent care before the patient realizes something is amiss.  Here are several examples to consider:

  • The Apple Watch has several sensors that scientists from IBM and the American Sleep Apnea Association will use to monitor patients with sleep disorders better.
  • FuturePath Medical’s UroSense system alerts care providers to small changes in a catheterized patient’s urine output, helping doctors jump on life-threatening conditions early.
  • Many IoT devices can now alert emergency responders if you fall or are unresponsive. Originally designed for elderly people who live alone, these tools may make sense for many patients who need regular monitoring for blood pressure or other issues.
  • Health providers will begin using IoT technology for operational issues like pharmacy inventory management, ensuring that the drugs patients need are always available, with RFID tags and scanners that re-order as soon as a drug is dispensed.
  • Smart contact lenses are making significant strides, fast.  Swiss Federal Institute of Technology scientists have created contact lenses with 2.8x zoom, specifically designed to help users with degenerative eye diseases. Google has secured patents for lenses featuring glucose sensors intended to read tear fluid chemicals in potentially determining blood sugar levels. And glaucoma patients, who battle high eye pressure which could lead to irreversible blindness, may soon be able to depend on contact lenses that monitor and treat their eye pressure automatically.
  • The VitalPatch™ biosensor is set to revolutionize the way individual vital signs and biometrics are measured and tracked, such as heart rate, respiratory rate, body posture, and skin temperature.
  • Apps that help you manage your health conditions via your smartphone by providing information to the doctor or hospital of your choice are fast approaching, especially given recent releases like Apple’s CareKit. Smartphone-connected thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, scales, and of course activity trackers further enable remote patient monitoring. Therefore, as more and more doctors begin keeping electronic medical records, affiliations with such services and applications is inevitable.

It’s hard to say when or if your doctor will ever want to sync up with your step counter, but the healthcare industry is undoubtedly figuring out how to use the best of today’s Connected Life technology to provide better care for all of us.