There’s an argument that technology has been part of healthcare since the first doctor picked up a scalpel. But the Internet era is taking things to a whole new level.
As digital communications technologies become ever faster, more reliable and more cost-effective to implement, so the possibilities for a connected approach to healthcare are increasing too. Enter connected medical devices – the introduction of Internet of Things (IoT) technology to the healthcare sector.
A long history – an exciting future
The roots of IoT in healthcare actually go back further than you might think. Long before journalists were getting excited about driverless cars and smart fridges, telemetry – that is, remote data gathering – was already being used to powerful effect by medical practitioners. This article, for example, discussed the possibilities for integrating systems like electrocardiogram monitoring with ‘voice grade telephone lines’ back in 1976!
The game-changing aspect of the IoT lies in its ability to connect such data to the wider internet. Devices that can not only collect key healthcare data but also consolidate and analyse it, en masse where necessary, have the power to enable more personalised and agile care than ever before. There are massive possibilities. Big data from thousands or even millions of patients could be analysed collectively, to drive new insights and innovations. Machine learning could enable devices to deliver more effective interventions over time. Little wonder, then, that by one estimate the global IoT healthcare industry could be worth $117 billion by 2020.
What does IoT for healthcare look like?
Connected healthcare devices can be categorised into a number of different groups, ranging from consumer-facing through to highly specialise, complex machines of which a single hospital might just have one.
At the consumer end of the spectrum we have so-called ‘wearable technology’ – things like fitness trackers, which might collect data such as heart rate, number of steps taken – and of course, geo-location. These have leapt in popularity over recent years. Of course, devices like pedometers have existed for many years, but the IoT enables such devices to report the data they collect back to a centralised analytics engine – users will generally see this as a mobile app. In turn, users can track their fitness over time, gaining new insights into their activity levels, and potentially greater motivation to work out.
Simple enough. But these data aren’t just useful for individuals. Health insurance companies are already looking for ways to harness this information – it’s easy to see, for example, how premiums could be raised or lowered according to individuals’ activity levels.
Moving further along the IoT healthcare spectrum, and we arrive at wearable medical devices, such as external insulin pumps – or internal, implanted items like pacemakers. In these scenarios, not only can massively valuable data on patient condition and outcomes be collected and analysed over time, but healthcare interventions – a change to medicine dose, for example – can be administered remotely. Healthcare practitioners can make decisions from anywhere – and they can inform those decisions with vast quantities of real patient data.
Stationary devices within hospitals can also be enhanced with connected technology. Chemotherapy stations, for example, or intelligent pharmacy stations. Here, once again, the advantages for the healthcare sector range from mass data analysis, which drives more intelligent care, through to, at the individual patient level, being able to make decisions and administer treatments with greater agility.
Benefits and risks
On the one hand, it’s easy to see how this explosion of innovation can enable more intelligent and more personalised care. On the other, as with the introduction of wireless communications to any other sector, there are clear risks in terms of data protection and cybercrime. Hospitals are already becoming hunting grounds for cybercriminals, who recognise that when technology is a matter of life and death, taking control of it can be powerful grounds for extortion.
For the IoT to continue driving healthcare enhancements, then, the development of new connected medical devices needs to go hand-in-hand with a focus on powerful data protection mechanisms – from the level of a wearable fitness tracker that slips on the wrist, right through to enormous stationary devices dispenses treatment in hospitals.