IoT: enabling next-gen healthcare services
Now that cloud computing is enabling vast streams of information to be integrated at a single point, the rising utilisation of Internet of Things (IoT) equipment has subsequently blossomed. Capable of gathering valuable data regarding practically any quantifiable metric using cameras, sensors and other smart devices, IoT is a vital part of any digital transformation journey seeking increased efficiency, cost reduction and enhanced levels of service.
Helping Healthcare Global to understand how this highly important technology is reshaping modern health services, representatives from Vodafone, Altran, McKinsey & Co, Syniverse and other organisations spoke with us on the paradigm-shifting topic of IoT.
What effect has the deployment of IoT had on…
According to Jon Lee-Davey, Global IoT Healthcare Lead at Vodafone Business, IoT “has the potential to drastically improve the patient experience, providing greater freedom and offering better overall access to healthcare.” Fundamentally, this benefit comes down to the advent of wearable devices which can then relay information to hospitals, medical professionals, etc. In addition to the convenience of enabling patients to live their lives normally whilst still measuring their health, Lee-Davey emphasises that moulding a patient’s treatment to their lifestyle allows them to take greater ownership of it and therefore increases its likelihood of success.
“As the technology evolves, we will see greater portability of devices which means patients can be monitored from anywhere, not just their homes,” he adds. “An example of one of these developments could be adding IoT devices to clothing, which would make the experience as seamless as possible for the patient; they wouldn’t have to do anything.” The net effect, then, is comfort and convenience for a patient without mitigating their health needs. Michael Chui, Partner at McKinsey Global Institute, largely concurs with this assessment, although he clarifies that the best is yet to come: “In many ways, it is still early days in terms of achieving the full potential IoT deployment in healthcare,” he states. “Some of the most transformative potential benefits, such as proactively managing chronic conditions that account for a large percentage of the disease burden in many countries (diabetes, heart disease and chronic lung disease) have yet to be achieved.” In addition, challenges such as ‘closing the loop’, or ensuring that patients being measured remotely can adequately respond if equipment detects the need for the administration of a drug, for example, have yet to be fully resolved.
In addition to previous career experience at IBM and working for the City of Bloomington, Minneapolis, Chui holds a BSc in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University (1986-1991), an MSc in Computer Science (1991-1994) and a PhD in Computer Science & Cognitive Science (1994 - 2002) - both from Indiana University Bloomington.
The convenience of IoT technology isn’t just for patients: doctors, too, will benefit from the enhanced level of insight afforded to them. “IoT will allow doctors to track their patient in real-time, not just when they visit the hospital for an appointment,” says Lee-Davey. “This means that a patient can be measured in a real-world environment, which gives a much more accurate insight into their health. In turn, this leads to better decision-making when it comes to things like adjusting medication or altering treatment, which means improved outcomes for the patient.” Moreover, doctors’ workflows can be streamlined, granting them flexibility and a level of engagement hitherto unachievable. “As we have seen with lockdown, people have grown accustomed to digital interfaces and are more open to being treated virtually,” Lee-Davey continues. “IoT can be used to enhance things like video appointments, by providing even more context for both doctor and patient.”
For Chui, IoT’s benefit to hospitals can be summarised succinctly: efficiency. “In this arena, IoT has most often been used to achieve operational benefits for facilities management and asset tracking,” he explains. “It can also be used to monitor patients by sending data about a patient’s pulse and oxygen levels to central stations and into electronic health records, or even tracking the location of patients within the building - such as if a child is about to leave a pediatric area.”
However, since doctors’ will be able to treat patients at home using IoT devices such as those aforementioned, another critical advantage will be the reduced burden on hospital capacity. The precious but limited resources of hospital beds and doctors’ time will subsequently be unencumbered and remain available to those who truly need them most. “This is particularly the case with patients that suffer from chronic illnesses who have previously needed to visit the hospital on a regular basis,” says Lee-Davey. “All of this results in increased efficiencies and cost-saving for hospitals; a massive benefit.”
Trained as an engineer with a BEng from the University of Portsmouth (1994-1999) and an EngD from Cranfield University (1999-2004), Lee-Davey gained experience in the healthcare sector by working for Johnson & Johnson prior to joining Vodafone in 2011.
What are the advantages of IoT-enhanced health services?
According to David Hassman, Head of Corporate Development and Strategy at tech services company Syniverse, IoT could be the secret ingredient to achieving a difficult long-term goal for healthcare: consistent quality of service. “One of the critical challenges faced by the healthcare industry is the ability to consistently deliver gold standard care to patients, regardless of their location. IoT devices make this possible both within the medical facility and remotely,” he states. With a stable, robust and integrated network firmly in place, hospitals can prepare for a patient’s assessment or treatment schedule before they have even arrived at the building. “For example, ambulance units equipped with IoT devices remotely connect doctors and first responders, enabling early diagnoses and implementation of treatment plans. This type of intervention could improve the prognosis for patients in emergency situations.” Hassman adds that administrative functions (such as bed assignment) can be automated, whilst low-latency IoT networks increase the possibility of remote surgery as a standard practice, “leveraging expertise from the global medical community to achieve the best outcomes for patients.”
David Hassman is the Head of Corporate Development and Strategy at Syniverse. Starting with the company in 2013, his previous roles have included product management at Motorola, Vice President at Livingstone Partners and VP at BTI Systems.
In fact, networks of sensors could be arranged so meticulously that monitoring no longer became an exhaustive concern for medical staff, even in large hospitals with a challenging employee-to-patient ratio. It is this capacity generating quality of IoT which Naveen Kumar, Vice President of Technology in the Research and Innovation group at Altran, says will be the most overt gain. “The enablement of new use cases which were previously not possible, such as continuous monitoring, treatment adherence, etc, will now be possible. These will be based on true-to-life evidence to drive better patient outcomes.” An example he gives of this principle in action is a recent one: patients with a chronic condition that don’t want to visit a hospital because of COVID-19 will be spared an uncomfortable situation via IoT-enabled healthcare, which can monitor them remotely and accurately in the safety of their own home. “This also means that doses of medicine can be more accurate, more effective and ultimately drive greater efficiency.” Indeed, Kumar also claims that data collected and analysed can be accurate enough to preempt the worsening of symptoms up to three days in advance.
Naveen leads the ‘Future of Healthcare’ program, focussing on Digital Operations, Clinical Studies, Personalised Medicine and AI in life sciences. Naveen’s team is helping to improve the patient journey by applying the latest digital technologies including cloud, containers, microservices and IoT.
How are concerns relating to cybersecurity and data integrity addressed?
The rise of IoT and smart health devices has not been without its disadvantages; increased reliance on digital technology engenders a parallel rise in cyberattacks and their associated damages. “Healthcare facilities are very attractive to cybercriminals due to the sensitive and valuable nature of patient data,” says Hassman. “In addition, hospitals form part of a country’s critical infrastructure and disruptions caused by cyberattacks can have devastating consequences. Apart from intentional attacks by cybercriminals, accidental data exposure can also be damaging, both in terms of patient privacy and the reputation of the facility.”
Therefore, a comprehensive risk management framework encompassing technical consideration, people and processes needs to be developed. Kumar references Altran’s contribution (one of 26 consortium partners) to the S3P platform - smart, safe and secure - as an example of end-to-end protection for data streams generated by multiple sources. Collaborative projects like this will be useful in accelerating solutions to the ongoing threat of cyberattacks. Running IoT devices on private networks which are kept separate from the public internet can also be beneficial as each asset will require individual authentication, thus stemming the spread at isolated points should the equipment become compromised.
Although a complicated issue, it does appear that healthcare providers are aware of the need to protect their IoT networks. Hassman states that, according to Syniverse’s research, “almost two-thirds of healthcare providers cited protection against data theft and financial loss as the top priority for their IoT security strategy.” Nonetheless, whilst many are prepared to face an attack from the outside, fewer hospitals might consider human error as a cybersecurity weak point, although it is far more likely. “Healthcare providers should be mindful of the cyber literacy of their staff as a simple mistake could put the entire network at risk,” he continues. “In addition to implementing a secure network, education should be a core part of the security strategy to keep patient data safe.”
Which IoT-complementary technologies will facilitate the next generation of healthcare?
As previously stated by Chui, the healthcare sector may have barely realised the scope of what an optimised IoT network could achieve. When considering what might pair with it drive the industry’s future, both Chui and Lee-Davey cite artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G as augmentations which could yield a significantly improved service. “Electronic health records are being combined with IoT to enable seamless data collection with low error rates. Analytics and AI can then be used to provide input into clinical decisions,” says Chui. “The lower latency provided by 5G (estimated to conceivably exceed the fastest 4G by 20 times) can enable hospitals to use robotics for diagnosis or surgical procedures, which can have great benefits to more efficient use of clinical expertise,” adds Lee-Davey.
For Ana Maria Giménez, Partners’ Solutions Sales Director at network specialist Sigfox, enhanced IoT could revolutionise the diagnostics of illnesses by coordinating atmospheric conditions with a patient’s symptoms: “IoT could enable the low-cost capture of much more data from both patients and their environment (air quality, temperature, humidity, etc.) to correlate specific health problems with other elements that could not be measured before.” Antonio Espingardeiro, a member of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and software expert, takes this one step further by envisioning healthcare wherein IoT sensors are no longer external by dispersed within the body: “They would be able to track everything from glucose to oxygen to temperature. With the broader adoption of IoT devices, daily health measurements will generate vast amounts of biometric readings and, naturally, we will require more advanced machine learning (ML) algorithms to make sense of this data.”
Although this concept might still lie in the health services’ future, it is an interesting vista onto the possibilities being opened by IoT. With data harvested from unique locations and analysed using state-of-the-art AI and ML software, clinicians and doctors will be able to identify emerging health patterns faster and with greater accuracy. The results can then be presented to the patient and reviewed regularly, allowing for truly comprehensive healthcare cover.