The healthcare industry has been slow to adopt digital-first practices. While other industries are filing records in the cloud and hosting meetings over videoconference, care providers are still using file cabinets and doing follow-ups in person.
That attitude is changing quickly, however. We are on the cusp of an Internet of Things-powered revolution that has the potential to transform healthcare.
A healthcare sector driven by an Internet of Medical Things is on the horizon. Connected medical devices, big data and the cloud are becoming crucial tools to improve care, fight diseases and overcome the challenges facing healthcare.
Smart Devices Dramatically Improve the Patient Experience
Traditionally, medical devices like glucose monitors and pacemakers have been standalone instruments. Most don’t collect data. If they do, that data is stored locally on the device itself.
Connected medical devices are different. By incorporating IoT sensors, these devices can be connected to one another and to applications in the cloud, allowing for the instant transfer of data, real-time monitoring, machine learning and automation.
Patients fitted with a connected medical device can take a much more hands-on approach to their healthcare, writes Healthcare Dive Associate Editor Ana Mulero. Having access to data, whether it’s from the device itself or a cloud-based application, gives patients a better understanding of their health, which could eliminate the need for follow-ups when all is well — and thereby lower overhead costs of care provision.
Connected medical devices could even be used to administer medication. Treatment adherence is a big issue particularly with chronic illnesses, notes Emerj’s Kumba Sennaar. But with connected devices, the responsibility can be shifted from the patient to the healthcare provider.
Instead of the patient having to remember to take their medication at several points throughout the day, a connected device can, at the very least, remind the patient when to take their medication and how much to take. More likely, however, that connected device will actually administer the medication for them. This can significantly increase the quality of life for the patient, Sennaar notes, and it can “reduce the economic burden of chronic disease.” As treatment adherence increases, the need for more expensive intervention at a later stage decreases.
There’s likely to be little push back from patients. We’re already accustomed to wearing connected devices, points out Business Insider’s Alicia Phaneuf. Wearable technology like Fitbits and smartwatches have already become staples, with the use of these devices tripling between 2015 to 2019, Phaneuf reports. Consumers feel comfortable wearing these devices, too, she adds, as research by Business Insider Intelligence found that 80 percent of consumers were willing to wear fitness tech.
Device Data Empowers Healthcare Professionals
It’s not just the patients’ lives that will be transformed by connected medical devices. Data from the devices will similarly impact the workflows of healthcare professionals.
This data can be indispensable and used for several purposes, notes the team at SRG. On a personal level, data from always-on devices like continuous glucose monitors can be used by doctors to provide a better, more personalized service to individual patients. But that same individual data, when combined with thousands of other individual data streams, can also be used to further research goals and advances in medicine.
Being able to remotely access patient data from the cloud could transform the doctor-patient dynamic, says Scale Computing’s Alan Conboy. The concept of patients having to visit a surgery or hospital could become a thing of the past in many instances. Instead, connected devices will allow medical staff to access data on their patients almost instantly and review that data, even if the patient isn’t present. This will be particularly useful for doctors treating ongoing, long-term illnesses such as diabetes, he says, as well as treating the elderly and those with dementia.
This kind of data could even be used to detect potential issues, allowing the patient to receive treatment before serious problems arise. This will provide tremendous value to all parties involved, explain Deloitte’s Mathias Cousin, Tadashi Castillo-Hi and Glenn H. Snyder. Healthcare providers would be able to adjust treatment to make it more effective. Payers would be able to avoid unnecessary additional costs. Ultimately and most importantly, the patient would remain healthier for longer.
The Cloud Will Be Crucial for Analyzing Data
For the benefits described above to be realized, it will be essential for healthcare providers and manufacturers to integrate a cloud-based system to store all of the data the devices generate.
Only the cloud gives doctors, nurses and other medical professionals the fast and easy access to the data they need, says Built In’s Mike Thomas. Hosting in the cloud also ensures that data is not at risk of being wiped out if something happens to the on-site servers.
Hector Rodriguez, chief information security officer at Microsoft’s Worldwide Health, points out that moving data to the cloud is now more secure than storing data on-site. “Cloud based solutions have matured to a point where they are more secure than local server solutions alone,” he says. “The reality is that these solutions, when properly integrated, should and do strengthen an enterprise’s overall cybersecurity posture by adding additional layers of security and monitoring.”
That’s not to say everything will happen in the cloud, however. There’s also edge computing, in which data is processed closer to the devices that gather the data or the algorithms that analyze it. Given the huge volumes of medical data that will need to be crunched, dedicated edge computing applications will be essential, writes Blair Felter, marketing director at vXchnge.
“By retaining much of the critical processing tasks on the devices located on the edge of the network, healthcare IT architectures can still gain the benefit of gathering health-related data while also getting the rapid, real-time analytics that can predict and respond to health emergencies.”
The Entire Industry Will Be Transformed by Connected Devices
Ultimately, the impact of connected medical devices on the healthcare industry will go way beyond the doctor-patient relationship.
Dr. Shafiq Rab, senior vice president and CIO at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, believes we will see a shift in the way that care is delivered. With predictive analytics, preventative care will become the norm. New markets will develop, too, and more advanced treatments will be necessary as life expectancy increases.
The Internet of Medical Things can also help healthcare navigate the challenges of a growing and aging population. Perhaps the biggest issue, author and keynote speaker Bernard Marr writes, is the rising cost of care. A bigger population means more people to treat, but an aging population means more people to treat for longer. This is where connected devices come in with benefits such as cheaper preventative treatment, remote monitoring and less need for follow-up appointments.
An Internet of Medical Things could be particularly powerful for national healthcare organizations like the UK’s NHS, which is under increasing cost pressure, says ZDNet journalist Jo Best. Automation can take pressure away from overworked nursing staff, while sensors can be used to track valuable equipment. What’s more, the data gathered from hospitals and patients could be used to guide health policy at a national level.
But Healthcare Cybersecurity Will Need to Keep Pace
The path to this future is far from straightforward. Perhaps the biggest impediment to the success of connected devices is their inherent cybersecurity risk.
Attacks on healthcare organizations are common. A report by digital platform security provider Irdeto found that more than eight in 10 healthcare organizations have experienced an IoT attack in the past year. Almost a third of those attacked believed that the hack compromised end-user safety.
The general purpose of these attacks is usually not to cause harm to patients, notes Attivo Networks Chief Deception Officer Carolyn Crandall. Instead, it is to gain access to larger hospital networks and the valuable data that they hold.
“With stolen medical records, hackers can: easily set up a costly ransomware attack; carry out tax fraud and identity theft; track prescriptions, intercept delivery, and sell the drugs on the dark web; and offer for sale prized PHI records that command $50, versus $3 for a Social Security number, and a measly $1.50 for a credit card number,” Crandall says.
Thankfully, hospitals are becoming increasingly alert to cybersecurity risks. Cybersecurity journalist Kacy Zurkus says more and more healthcare providers include cybersecurity requirements in their procurement process. Some are even integrating their own cybersecurity measures.
So, too, is the FDA, Reed Smith Partner Maryanne Woo explains. “What you’re seeing is the FDA moving and expanding into this sphere of hackability,” she says. “It is also moving into terms of the security of the device, whether that device can be hacked, and then can be manipulated to cause patient injury.”
The healthcare industry may have been slow to adopt digital-first initiatives. But that’s not the case anymore. Smart, connected and cloud-based medical devices are already changing the lives of patients around the world. In the near future, this kind of technology will transform the entire industry.