The healthcare industry is currently in a chaotic state. Even with all the technology available, we’re unable to predict, prevent or treat diseases accurately. Because of the ever-rising global population, most hospitals run out of beds and even, sometimes, basic supplies. But change is on the horizon. There is promising technology that could significantly change the way the healthcare industry operates: IoT.
Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the term IoT at least once. Be it smartwatches, fitness bands, or smart home technology, IoT has already made its way into our lives. And now, it is about to bring about some major upgrades to the healthcare industry as well.
In this article, we discuss some practical applications and use cases for IoT Healthcare Devices.
What is IoT?
By definition, IoT, or the Internet of Things, is a network of interconnected objects that have the ability to collect data, and communicate and coordinate with each other over a wireless network with the help of advanced sensors and software systems.
To better understand it, we can look at it this way: just as the internet has made it possible for humans across the globe to communicate with each other, the Internet of Things makes it possible for physical objects to communicate and coordinate with each other. Here, “physical objects” can be electrical appliances, devices, biochips, solar panels, automobiles, or medical equipment.
Now, this connection between devices opens the door to a world full of possibilities. Analysts Jim Morrish and Matt Hatton predict that there could over 24.1 billion connected devices by the year 2030. This means that almost all existing industries could be affected in one way or another by the use of IoT enabled devices.
Among these industries is the healthcare industry. It is expected that healthcare could undergo a radical change simply by employing IoT solutions. From virtual hospitals and remote consultations to better pharmacy management, here are some practical applications for IoT healthcare devices.
1) Using IoT healthcare devices, patients can now be monitored remotely
One of the biggest challenges for doctors is monitoring and keeping track of all patients being treated at a facility. Their work-life balance is severely compromised as they have to work longer hours at the hospital or rush to the hospital anytime there is an emergency. IoT can solve these problems.
With the help of devices and mobile applications that enable two-way communication, patients can be monitored easily. Doctors can get real-time readings of temperature, blood pressure, oxygen levels, weight, and even ECG with the help of smart medical equipment that can transmit data directly to their mobile phones. These readings will enable doctors to accurately monitor and treat patients from the comfort of their homes.
2) Fall detectors to tackle emergencies
Imagine this scenario. An elderly patient admitted to the hospital has his oxygen mask fall off and is not in a position to hit the panic button. Well, by the time the nursing staff becomes aware of the situation, it could be too late. This is where IoT healthcare devices could be a lifesaver.
The rise of IoT has allowed innovators to come up with some amazing devices called fall detectors. Fall detectors employ a couple of sensors that are embedded into physical objects, which are worn around the neck or on the wrist. The sensors track the patient’s movements and activities and also monitor various bodily functions. In case of emergencies where the movements seem irregular or the body functions are not as expected, nursing staff can instantly be made aware of the situation.
The best part is that these detectors eliminate the need to cover the patient in a network of complicated wires to track body functions.
3) Smart Wearables
Not only can fall detectors be used for patients in hospitals, IoT paves the way for a truckload of wearables that can vastly increase the efficiency of the healthcare industry. From bracelets and rings to smartwatches and fitness bands, sensors can be embedded into almost any wearable object and turn it into a tracking device. These wearables can be used to track patients’ sleeping patterns, exercise habits, blood sugar levels, heart activity, and menstrual cycle.
The AVA bracelet that tracks ovulation in women, BioScarf for protection against 99.75% of germs and Bio-Patch that measures a person’s heart rate and ECG are some brilliant examples of smart wearables.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, these wearables became even more important. According to an article published by EHSToday, the data collected by these wearables helped doctors create a pattern (model) that could predict if a person has caught the infection with 80% accuracy.
Along with patients, these wearables can be used to monitor staff as well. Hospitals can keep a track of their workers’ log-in times, work hours, and activity during the day by mandating RFID based wearables.
4) Virtual hospitals are now a reality
These smart wearables, detectors, and other IoT healthcare devices that enable smart tracking of patients have given way to something that seemed impossible a few years ago – Virtual Hospitals. Patients with trivial health conditions can consult doctors and be treated from the comfort of their homes, thus freeing up bed-space for those who really need it. Patients with chronic and terminal illnesses who require long-term care can also be monitored and treated at home.
One such hospital is the RPA Virtual Hospital in Sydney that opened just in time for the global pandemic. The medical staff of RPA made use of apps, clip-on devices, and other wearables to track their patients’ health conditions. This enabled them to provide timely remote care and treatment to those who needed it.
According to Mobi Health News, the first 40 patients to undergo such remote treatment showed “very strong support for the Remote Patient Monitoring model”.
5) IoT healthcare devices enable better research and development
IoT healthcare devices allow us to collect huge amounts of data about the functioning of the heart, brain, central nervous system, and various other internal organs. We can closely monitor how different diseases affect the human body and its function. This data can prove to be a mine of knowledge for scientists, researchers, and doctors across the globe.
Analyzing and using this data properly could help bring about comprehensive progress in the field of healthcare. We would be able to develop new methods to predict, prevent and even treat diseases more effectively. We might also able to find a cure for chronic and terminal illnesses. These developments in healthcare infrastructure would significantly increase the average life expectancy of an individual in the long run.
6) Health Insurance made easy
Insurance, especially health insurance, is probably one of the key industries that IoT will disrupt. Health insurance companies will no longer have to deal with false insurance claims or make universal insurance policies based on outdated risk assessment techniques. They can smartly make use of the data captured by monitoring devices to provide customized policies to their customers.
So, how does this work? Insurance companies can introduce or mandate the use of IoT healthcare devices and certain mobile apps for their customers. Using the data provided by these devices, companies can assess the existing health conditions of their customer and create tailor-made policies that specifically fit their needs. Risks can be accurately calculated and people with a fairly low-risk threshold need not pay a huge sum.
Another added advantage of this is that it simplifies the process of claiming insurance. Because the company can track the health of its customers in real-time, it can instantly release funds in case of hospitalization. Companies can also avoid fraudulent claims by employing IoT solutions.
7) Better pharmacy management and faster drug delivery
Pharmacy management is an integral part of the healthcare industry and is quite complicated. There are several steps involved in the process of manufacturing drugs, transporting them to storage houses and eventually to pharmacies. This is where mistakes are bound to happen. Some drugs might be misused, left to expire, or even lost in the process. IoT can solve these problems.
Manufacturers and hospitals are placing RFID tags on medicines to track their distribution and usage across the country. These tags will also be able to recognize expired medicines and notify staff of this information.
To reduce the errors in distribution, the National Institute of Health initiated pill image recognition software that can recognize a pill using a smartphone camera. With the help of Electronic Health Records and e-prescriptions, pharmacies can keep a track of the medicines their customers use frequently and re-stock them appropriately.
Challenges in implementing IoT solutions
Okay! IoT for healthcare is impressive. But, implementing all of this is definitely not easy. Here are some challenges that could arise during rollout.
1) User privacy might be compromised
For any of the above mentioned IoT solutions to be accurately implemented, data needs to be collected. For this, users’ activity, sleep and exercise patterns, menstrual cycles, and other related information needs to be tracked 24/7. This means that the user has no privacy whatsoever. Everything they do throughout the day is tracked by hospitals and even insurance companies. Having a legal regulation in place about how much data can be tracked and how it can be used might help overcome this problem.
Along with this, the process of tracking, collecting, and transferring data over a network can make it easily susceptible to hackers. Hospitals and companies need to make sure that their networks are cyber-secure to protect their users’ data.
2) Storing and processing huge amounts of data is not easy
Now, if every user is being tracked 24/7, imagine the amount of data that will be generated in the process. Storing and processing all of this data can prove to be a huge challenge. Hospitals might need to hire an army of people only to analyze all the data and make predictions. And, especially in the healthcare industry, mistakes while analyzing data can cost lives.
3) Integrating hundreds of devices might be hard
IoT aims to build a network of interconnected devices. But, integrating thousands of devices and wearables into a single network is another challenge in the way of healthcare IoT. It becomes even harder because manufacturers are usually not on the same page when it comes to device connectivity or communication protocols.
For instance, if a patient uses an Apple Smartwatch, it might be quite hard to track that patient on Android-powered devices. This lack of understanding between manufacturers can slow down the scalability of IoT in healthcare.
4) IoT solutions can be quite expensive
As of today, IoT solutions are quite expensive. Devices like smartwatches, smart speakers, or wearables are still quite pricey and not ideal for a regular person. In addition to this, IoT solutions could prove to be expensive for hospitals as well. Employing people to track data, cyber security, and data storage will increase the maintenance costs exponentially.
In the healthcare industry, new technologies like IoT can actually be quite beneficial to both doctors and patients alike. The onus lies on authorities to implement and scale the technology properly. If done well, IoT healthcare devices could open up some new dimensions in patient care and make state-of-the-art facilities accessible to almost anyone.