IoT, the Internet of Things, has rapidly picked up steam in the past couple of years. New technologies and improvements have taken it from a novelty to an everyday household necessity. That being said, some of the applications of IoT are a lot more important and have a much larger impact than simple things like home automation devices, for example.
One of the key applications is within IoT for healthcare, and the medical industry in general, where the applications of IoT benefit patients, hospitals, families, physicians, and insurance companies.
Monitoring before and after IoT
In the past, hospital monitoring was done in a rather traditional way. We had nurses and doctors go from room to room to check up on patients, take notes about their condition and vitals, and see where things needed improvement. The main goal was to speed up patient recovery and make sure everyone is being looked after.
And this is where one of the applications of IoT comes in, with remote monitoring. IoT-enabled devices allow for remote monitoring, which adds a lot of potential for keeping patients healthy and safe. Instead of having doctors go to the patients, the monitoring devices send data to one centralized monitoring system. Doctors have an overview of all patients and their conditions without ever leaving the room.
This is all done with simple devices such as wearables. Wearables have similar functions to traditional blood pressure or heart rate monitoring cuffs, but provide doctors with a greater range of statistics. You can even set these devices up to monitor calorie count, remind patients of their exercise routine, etc. By offering this kind of monitoring, IoT-enabled devices will make sure that any deviation from what is expected is immediately sent to the doctors in the form of a notification.
There is also one more hidden benefit with IoT-enabled monitoring: patient-doctor interactions are a lot easier. No longer does your doctor need to ask a lot of questions to specifically identify how you’re feeling – they already know. When they come to your room, they already know if anything needs to be done, which allows for a much more relaxed atmosphere, something a lot of patients appreciate.
Device tracking and inventory management within hospitals
A key issue that a lot of hospitals struggle with nowadays is keeping track of their equipment. While this might not be too big a deal for some of the equipment, knowing the exact location and availability of a defibrillator or an oxygen pump can save someone’s life.
IoT-enabled devices can be used for tracking this kind of equipment. The beauty is that most of the tracking sensors and tags are made to use low energy data transfer protocols. In layman’s terms, this means you can have a tracking sticker that shows where in the hospital an item is located, and its battery lasts for months. According to Embedded, battery life is key in such devices, which is why a lot of the research is oriented towards improving battery life further, or simply eliminating batteries altogether.
So, how would that work? Currently, the common solution is RFID. You have tags that are small and can be attached to pretty much any physical surface. This includes equipment but also finished goods, packages, or crates. In a hospital, which is more or less an industrial setting, a passive tag is used, thus eliminating batteries.
However, this requires an RFID antenna that captures the waves from the reader and provides energy for the tag to work. The RFID reader is the last piece of the puzzle and is responsible, unsurprisingly, for reading the RFID tag. But this is the simpler solution, and it pretty much ends there, with capturing the device data and time of reading.
By implementing IoT-enabled devices, this can be taken a step further. IoT isn’t just about the hardware, it’s about the software as well, which is why a major player in the entire system is machine learning. Machine learning is used to make predictions based on the data that RFID readers provide. For example, the output of a machine learning-enabled IoT system could be a notification that the hospital will need to replenish some of its materials, or that a certain inventory item is lost.
This is one of the applications of IoT. It allows you to have real-time monitoring of just about any piece of equipment in the hospital that’s important. It also lets you worry less about whether or not you need to get new supplies – the IoT-enabled system will let you know.
Taking advantage of AI and machine learning even further
Inventory management is probably the simplest way of taking advantage of the artificial intelligence found in most modern IoT systems. What’s nice is that the possibilities and applications of IoT are pretty much endless, and careful implementation of the entire system can take away a lot of the more mundane decisions from hospital management.
There are plenty of algorithms being developed with computer-learning artificial intelligence, and these algorithms are much better at tracking and managing things than a human counterpart.
What’s even more important, they’re a lot better at identifying patterns that a human might not notice. This is a process that may, and probably will, improve most inventory management decisions.
And it doesn’t end there. While you could certainly use AI on its own to simply improve system functions, you can take things a step further and combine it with human supervision and decision-making. This allows for a quick and efficient analysis of the data the IoT system provides, and you can make swift decisions based on the identified patterns.
But arguably the largest benefit is the ability to quickly identify any bottlenecks in the process and the ability to see how you can eliminate them. A constant overview and analysis of the entire inventory and management process will easily show any areas where improvement might be possible, thus allowing you to streamline the process further.
IoT-enabled devices are replacing conventional procedures
There is no denying that a lot of patients don’t really like some of the procedures and routines that need to be done in order to identify a disease or confirm suspicions. But with IoT-enabled devices, you can reduce the number of such procedures, and make even the necessary ones feel simple and painless.
A prime example is a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is an exam that has one goal – identify any issues or abnormalities in the rectum and large intestine, or colon. The way it’s done isn’t all that pleasant, however. It requires a long, flexible tube known as a colonoscope to be inserted into the rectum. The colonoscope has a tiny camera at the tip of the tube, which allows the doctor to view the inside of the colon.
But if you ask Dr. Kouroush Kalantar-Zadeh, it doesn’t have to be that way. The doctor and the team at RMIT University have developed a swallowable gut sensor that measures the levels of four different stomach gases when digested. It’s made of safe plastic, and it’s made to transmit data to a receiver outside the body, which is a simple smartphone.
Even though it’s incredibly straightforward, the doctor and his team have found a way to turn one of the most frowned upon medical procedures into something incredibly simple that offers a lot of data without the trouble of getting it.
Smartwatch monitoring is a thing
Although not primarily in the healthcare industry, smartwatch manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung have continued adding health-related sensors to their devices. A prime example of this is the Apple Watch Series 4, which was the first smartwatch with the ability to take an echocardiogram while you’re wearing it.
As shown in clinical trials, the inclusion of an ECG sensor resulted in a mere 41% accuracy when it comes to picking up occurrences of irregular heartbeat. Compared to the 98% accuracy of additional waveform PDF, the Apple Watch was just inaccurate, and you couldn’t really rely on it.
The Series 4 came out in 2018, but the Series 6, which came in 2020 greatly improved accuracy. Apple also gained FDA clearance for the updated version, which confirms that the ECG sensor is now pretty accurate when it comes to detecting atrial fibrillation (AFib).
Following Apple’s footsteps, other manufacturers, such as Samsung, have added ECG, and even blood pressure monitoring. Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3, which is the latest iteration of the smartwatch, needs to be calibrated with a dedicated blood pressure monitor before use (and once every four weeks) and offers pretty accurate readings.
What’s great about smartwatch monitoring is that it provides important data, which would otherwise require a doctor’s visit, in a small computer on your wrist that looks like a fashion accessory. With the accuracy as good as it is now, it is only a matter of time before hospitals allow for such devices to be connected to their IoT systems for monitoring patients, even when they’re not in the hospital.
What does the future hold?
While there are a lot of arguments in favor of implementing IoT in healthcare, there are some challenges that need to be overcome. The most notable ones are pricing, logistics, and maintenance.
IoT devices on their own are not that expensive. But in the healthcare industry, you need potentially hundreds of them, and you need everything to work well as one entire system. This does result in a rather high price.
To add to this, the logistics of implementing an IoT system, both in terms of hardware and software, are a lot more complicated than they might appear at first. It’s not just implementation itself; it’s also about getting approval from the necessary government bodies as well.
And once you’ve implemented the entire system and you have it up and running, there is the challenge of keeping things running smoothly and securely. It’s not just about bringing IoT online and being done with it. It should work well if you are to enjoy the benefits.
When all is said and done, implementing IoT in healthcare to a level where it makes a difference is no small ordeal. But if you factor in all the benefits mentioned above, as well as all the benefits future technological improvements will bring, it’s clear that it’s one of the best improvements to the modern healthcare system.