Digital transformation is completely reinventing the world of healthcare. From robotic surgery to hyper-targeted treatments, new technologies are enabling a new world of connected care. In particular, Internet of Things (IoT) technology is accelerating change in healthcare by enabling doctors to harness the power of data collected by medical devices. This is transforming healthcare from being reactive to proactive, helping to improve early diagnostics. As well as facilitating remote healthcare, IoT technology can help health organisations to operate more efficiently, by enabling the tracking of resources such as hospital beds.
“Ensuring the security of sensitive medical data will be absolutely key to the future of connected care”
While IoT data is helping to fuel the development of smart hospitals, it's also helping to put healthcare into our own hands. IoT-based devices enable patients to take a more active role in their own care, which is particularly useful for the elderly and those with chronic conditions. Making use of IoT devices can also help people to get out of the hospital more quickly or even stop them from going there in the first place.
There is an incredibly wide range of potential applications for IoT-based devices and medical wearables that can help patients at home. For example, diabetes patches worn on the skin incorporate IoT sensors that record blood sugar levels and transmit the data to the user's smartphone. This helps people to manage their condition more easily and reduces the need for traditional finger-prick testing. Taking the idea one step further, researchers are now working on a smart patch that is also fitted with micro needles to deliver doses of insulin when required.1
Along with sensors worn on the skin, ingestible IoT sensors are also in development. These involve tiny electronics that fit inside a pill that can be swallowed by the patient. Sensors can then be used to monitor and send back data on gut health or used to monitor medicine ingestion in patients with mental health issues. In future, there is potential for smart pills to carry more complex sensors or even tiny cameras that could help doctors to monitor or diagnose medical conditions.
Another innovation that has the potential to change lives is the smart inhaler. Aimed at those with asthma and other chronic lung conditions, these devices link to smartphone apps in order to help users to keep track of their inhaler use.2 They can help to ensure that people are using their inhaler correctly and that they're getting a sufficient dose. Some smart inhalers can detect when the user is in an area with high pollution or pollen and send them a reminder. Early versions of smart inhalers have already started to roll out and lots more are currently in development.
IoT technology can also be incorporated into more widely used items, such as toothbrushes. For example, the latest model from Oral-B* features sensors integrated into the handle which work alongside an AI-powered smartphone app that can track the toothbrush's position in the user's mouth.3 Users can then refer to a graphic on the app that shows them any areas they've missed and gives them feedback on their brushing technique in order to help avoid gum disease.
Consumer wearables such as smartwatches and fitness trackers are also getting more advanced in terms of their health-monitoring capabilities. For example, the latest Apple Watch* features an ECG (electrocardiogram) function, which could be used to diagnose atrial fibrillation, a potentially dangerous form of irregular heart rhythm.4 What's more, Apple* also offers a software framework — Apple ResearchKit* — which helps researchers to gather medical data, while Apple CareKit* software helps developers to design apps that enable people to monitor their own health.
These are just a few examples of how IoT technology is helping to get smarter healthcare into the hands of the patients. Ensuring the security of sensitive medical data will be absolutely key to the future of connected care, particularly as much of it will be sent via the cloud. Where real-time data is involved, low latency is a must, which is where edge computing can help. Bringing the processing closer to where the data is generated offers a fast, seamless and secure way to capture and analyse data. Whatever the approach, the shift to data-driven healthcare will require robust, secure IT infrastructure to support it.
*Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others