From smart watches to Google Glass, the internet of things (IoT) is changing the way we live. Some changes naturally trickle into the healthcare industry while others are slowly adapted for healthcare use.
What is the Internet of Things?
The term ‘internet of things’ refers to the rapidly expanding network of physical objects that have an IP address for the purpose of connecting to the internet. This broad term also includes the communications that occur between objects and other internet-enabled devices.
The internet of things affects virtually every area of healthcare and its value proposition is broad. As discussed in a 2016 seminar led by the George Washington University Professors of Marketing Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak, the true value proposition of the internet of things includes the totality of new experiences that emerge as consumers connect and interact.
The healthcare industry sometimes uses a more specific term: the internet of healthcare things (IoHT). Both terms refer to the same type of technology.
Adopting the internet of things into new workplaces is often welcome: the technology often means increases in speed, accuracy, and efficiency. As current healthcare technology trends continue, we anticipate that the internet of things will disrupt the current healthcare workspace, starting in 2017.
While adopting the internet of things provides numerous benefits, we must consider the risks in order to get a full view of the long-term effects.
Current State of the Internet of Things in Healthcare
The internet of things has become a trendy buzzword in recent years, but it is not a new concept. The healthcare industry has been using telemetry for many years. Telemetry is similar in that it gathers data remotely. Still, the healthcare industry overall has made little progress incorporating internet of things technologies into healthcare changes in recent years.
The technologies we see today may offer a glimpse of what is to come. Hospitals, clinics, diagnostic laboratories and surgical centers around the world are already using various implanted, stationary and wearable medical devices for patients. Web applications also incorporate the technology of the internet of things to improve workflow management, patient monitoring, medication management, telemedicine and more.
The technologies outlined below are a few examples of how the internet of things is currently being used in healthcare:
• Health sensors for eldercare: The internet of things has already had great impact on eldercare. This may be due in part to the enormous cost of eldercare. With home health care costs averaging nearly $4,000 per month, new technologies provide great opportunity for significant cost reduction. Eldercare is already using the internet of things in devices to track wandering patients and to help seniors live safely and independently. For example, research teams supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) are retrofitting homes with sensor networks to monitor seniors’ behavior and activity. These sensors use machine learning to recognize patterns, such as eating and sleeping, to identify and report anything that may cause concern.
• Patient data: The use of internet of things inpatient data is currently limited, providing a large opportunity moving forward. Devices currently connected to the internet emphasize patient needs and improve the speed and accuracy of care through telemetry and accessible electrocardiogram stats.
• GPS tracking: Many hospitals use Bluetooth Low Energy and/or Bluetooth to track employees, equipment and supplies. This helps reduce theft and keeps staff working at a productive level.
Risks and Roadblocks in the Internet of Healthcare Things
The healthcare industry has been slow to adopt these technologies because the risks may be greater than in other industries. The industry handles sensitive information that must remain secure at all times. Although the internet of things offers many potentially life-saving benefits, its technologies store patient information that must comply with patient privacy and security regulations.
• Regulations – Security is part of any technology discussion, but it is especially challenging in healthcare. Stringent regulations make it difficult and time consuming to produce devices in compliance with legal and medical requirements. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) mandates the security for all patient data that is created, received, maintained or transmitted electronically.
• Security breaches – Cybersecurity is an obvious concern because of potential hacking, but subtler dangers exist as well. For example, an internet-savvy patient connected to internet-enabled infusion pump could potentially find service documentation online and increase or decrease their own dosage of medication. Hackers have also attacked entire hospital networks with ransomware, threatening to shut down their healthcare system unless they are paid large sums of money.
• Dangers of rapid growth – Hospital leadership may be hesitant to adopt any new system that has not been fully vetted. Often new technologies have not been field tested adequately, so hospital executives may feel the risks are too great. To standardize the introduction of new internet of things medical devices, such as insulin pumps, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is working to create guidelines for connected devices. These guidelines include accountability measures, such as data encryption, whenever data is being transmitted in or out of network.
A system will be more vulnerable when numerous changes are made in a short time. Security risks may increase exponentially, making it more difficult to pinpoint the root cause of an issue.
The Future of the Internet of Healthcare Things
The potential for the internet of healthcare things is huge. As more healthcare providers successfully adopt these technologies, approval for more devices will increase. This increase will likely be cautious, but it will change the way we give and receive care.
Technologies of the Future
Because the industry has been cautious to adopt internet-enabled healthcare devices, we can more easily predict the technologies that may be implemented in the future. Below are a few technologies that may alter the healthcare industry in 2017.
Surgical and Internet of Things Tagging
Currently some eldercare practices use the internet of things to tag patients, but this technology could be put to even wider use. With patient and equipment tracking, low-cost tags could associate the patient with their medical history. In surgery, doctors can tag a limb for operation, scan a barcode and receive all the information needed to begin surgery. This type of tagging is likely to reduce errors and save time.
Healthcare providers only wash their hands 55 percent of the time after visiting the restroom, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While staff are required to wash and sterilize before entering a surgical environment, their overall general hygiene is also very important in healthcare.
Microsoft and Gojo designed a project that used the internet of things to measure how often hospital workers washed their hands. The experiment used ceiling-mounted sensors to monitor foot traffic and sensors on the hand sanitizer dispensers to track how often staff used them. Without their knowledge, researchers tracked how often staff members washed their hands and found that only 16.5 percent of staff complied with this regulation.
Future technologies may allow hospital staff to monitor how often bathroom sinks turn on and how much water is dispensed. This type of behavioral monitoring can help stop the spread of infections through unsanitary habits.
Healthcare management could discipline staff once the pattern of behavior was established, but overall monitoring and maintenance of a program like this could lead to better hygienic practices by all staff members. In the case of the Microsoft study, compliance rates jumped to 31.7 percent when employees were aware and reminded that their habits were being tracked.
Technology companies are focusing a lot of resources on the rapidly expanding eldercare market. The future of eldercare may include technologies to help monitor seniors in their own homes, thus increasing a person’s independence and reducing the need for personal assistance. Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington are conducting studies to determine the viability of enhanced sensors within a senior’s home or apartment. As part of the study, they outfitted an apartment with sensors that can track biomarkers such as a patient’s temperature and balance. Mirrors in the same apartment can even monitor the face for signs of illness. Studies like this indicate the types of technologies we can expect in coming years.
Patients are increasingly taking control over their own health and wellbeing through wearable devices. In the near future, such devices will take more manual work away from users. For example, patients could use smart glasses to record food choices, calories and portion sizes to send to their healthcare provider. Doctors could then make dietary suggestions, delivered via push notification to the user’s smartphone. Consumer wearables that connect patients and doctors are likely to become more attainable in 2017.
The realm of vocal diagnostics may sound more like science fiction than reality, but one Israeli company is working to bring such technology to market. Beyond Verbal is launching a platform to analyze emotions from vocal intonations that are imperceptible to humans. These intonations are biomarkers that physicians can use as a diagnostic tool for assessing a range of illnesses from stress to cardiovascular disease.
3D printers are often powered by the internet of things. Together they have the ability to produce life-saving end products, such as 3D printed organs and tissues, drugs and medical imaging. The first 3D printed pill was made in 2016 by Spiritam to treat epilepsy. The 3D printing technology allows the pill to dissolve on the tongue, which is a major benefit to those who rely on medication and have trouble swallowing pills. Medical imaging created by 3D printers, including liquid and plastic models, is giving physicians an enhanced view of the internal workings of a patient’s body to help identify potential health issues.
The market for 3D printing in the healthcare industry was $1.2 million in 2013. It is expected to increase to over $4 million by 2018, according to a study by Visiongain. Customized prosthetic devices currently comprise the largest market share of 3D printing in healthcare, but the future of 3D printing offers many more opportunities. We can reasonably expect that doctors may be able to implant 3D printed organs made from a person’s own cells. Its impact could be immeasurable but considering FDA approvals, it must undergo testing and regulatory compliance before being brought to market. This technology is likely many years away.
Funding for Internet of Things Solutions in 2017
The flow of healthcare investing has fluctuated a great deal in the past 10 years, but the market is thriving today. Investors are expected to take a cautious approach to investing in 2017, but they will invest in the categories that show the most promise.
The internet of healthcare things is expected to reach $117 billion by the year 2020, according to a MarketResearch.com report mentioned in Forbes.
Venture capital firm Rock Health indicated that the categories of wearables and sensors, personal health tools and population health management would be strong in 2017. Products in these categories are considered “consumerization” products.
In 2017, advanced analytics will combine consumerization with “big data analytics” to provide a comprehensive view of healthcare; we anticipate major funding for these types of projects. Other major areas for funding may include cognitive computing and artificial intelligence.
Political Changes and Healthcare
Policy and politics play an important role in healthcare investing and the entire healthcare, but this is especially true in the early days of a presidency. Investors will pay careful attention to any potential changes made to the Affordable Care Act and are likely to base their decisions on such changes. Although this may seem to create vast uncertainties in the market, analysts are predicting investments that carry minimal risk. Currently, analysts are favoring data and consumer-oriented companies.
Due to the cautious nature of the healthcare industry, it is difficult to predict the potential of the internet of things. However, considering the current funding allocated to healthcare innovations, we can expect that a small revolution may not be so far in the future.
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