The Internet of Things Is Fueling the Future of Healthcare

November 21, 2018 - 7 minutes read

The U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) provides free healthcare funded by taxpayers. But it’s an underfunded, overstrained system that’s only getting stretched more with a growing population that will live longer; patients in the UK are visiting the doctor twice as much as they used to 10 years ago.

Developing Internet of Things (IoT) applications for specific situations may help ease the burden on the U.K.’s system by making healthcare more efficient and data more accessible.

IoT = More Connected Healthcare

Worldwide spending on IoT in healthcare reached $41 billion in 2017, and it’s projected to grow to $405 billion by 2026. On the surface, that seems like an absurd amount of growth. But it’s rooted in logic; more and more healthcare facilities are starting to understand the flexibility and potential IoT offers, so they’re finally investing in the technology.

IoT can help the NHS track and monitor patients as soon as they enter the hospital or clinic. At-home IoT devices and sensors can feed data indicating lifestyle information. And all of this information can live on one patient chart that’s digitized and accessible to providers all over the world.

The IoT can also help hospitals manage their operations more efficiently. Equipment can quickly get used up if you’re not constantly monitoring the supply; IoT devices can take that responsibility off human employees.

Caithness General Hospital in Scotland is already using IoT-enabled hospital beds for their patients. These beds have Bluetooth sensors that monitor location and system maintenance. The goal is to reduce NHS staff time in keeping track of individual beds and their maintenance schedules.

The London-headquartered NHS is teaming up with the Department of Health to award £10 million in grants to two test projects that are “IoT-led”.

The first one, called Technology Integrated Health Management (TIHM), strives to help people with dementia stay at home longer. Smart devices around the home are great for these types of patients. The second project, called the Diabetes Digital Coach, is a med tech platform that helps diabetic patients monitor their condition better; it has a minimal IoT component that connects to internet-enabled blood sugar monitors.

A Calculated Effort

Overall, the NHS’s IoT strategy revolves around two objectives: to track expensive and in-demand resources (equipment and providers) and to create a better self-care system for patients. For now, current endeavors are focused on gathering data and tracking locations. More complex projects will need more investment. And without previous results to indicate a complex project’s potential for success, these projects may be too expensive to undertake.

Dr. Vaughan Michell is the consulting program director at Henley Business School. He knows merging medicine and IoT is quite the challenge: “If you’re going to automate more complex medical activities using IoT, it requires a lot of effort — you can’t just buy something off the shelf. You need the medics to provide the medical knowledge, you need software engineers, you need hardware engineers to configure anything a bit more complicated, and you need systems integrators.”

Michell is also aware of the necessity for prudent planning: “Because it’s quite involved, you need to think about the benefits you’re going to get… and safety issues and unintended consequences if you want to do anything more unusual than just measure general parameters; that can be quite costly.”

Obstacles to Widespread Adoption

As with many other technologies, cybersecurity is, unfortunately, a prime concern with IoT. The U.K. is actually interested in implementing minimum IoT security standards, but tackling this complicated aspect of an already-complex technology can take decades. We just don’t have that kind of time; security flaws in healthcare IoT devices could mean the difference between life and death.

Data storage, ownership, and privacy are also big concerns that don’t get enough attention. For example, who would be responsible if a patient outcome utilizing AI and IoT goes awry? Who gets access to each of our records? And how easy is it to get access? These are tough questions to answer. But they’re just a few of many.

Deloitte’s report Medtech and the Internet of Medical Things: How connected devices are transforming health care emphasizes that integrating connected devices into healthcare is difficult.

“Health care providers, and in particular their EHRs [electronic health record], provide the central repository for data from multiple devices. For collaborations to be effective, health care providers need to grant MedTech companies access to this data, under agreed and approved circumstances, including, where relevant, patient consent on how this data can be used,” mentions the report.

Can a Healthier Future Be Automated?

Governments and providers are hopeful that IoT will bring more benefits than consequences. Costs will go down for taxpayers while illness rates improve across the board. Hospitals can run like well-oiled machines with timely deliveries of supplies and work orders for equipment maintenance.

Medical devices, like wearables, blood sugar monitors, and pacemakers, will eventually force healthcare to start integrating specialties and disparate patient data. Doctors will be able to adjust prescriptions without speaking to the pharmacist directly, freeing up time for providers to spend efforts and resources elsewhere.

Down the line, the end goal is automation of data collection and analysis, real-time insights, and actionable findings to further optimize the system. “We have no choice — in order to reduce costs and provide the support we need, we have to automate some of that basic data collection, and monitoring, etc. to free up skilled staff to focus on patient safety and patient service,” says Michell.

With a more connected healthcare system, we could spend less time in the doctor’s waiting room and more time living healthier. What are you looking forward to most about integrated healthcare?

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