Development of Healthcare Technology
Over the past few centuries, healthcare technology has come a long way—from the invention of the stethoscope in 1816 to robots performing surgery in 2020. As computers became more common starting in the 1960s and 1970s, researchers began to explore how they might enhance healthcare, and the first electronic health record (EHR) systems appeared by 1965 in the U.S. But it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that clinicians began to rely on computers for data management. Internet connectivity paved the way for much better data management, and EHRs became far more common in the 2000s.
On the clinical side, healthcare technology improved greatly between the 1950s and the turn of the twenty-first century. For example, people with Type 1 diabetes had no reliable way to test their blood sugar levels in the 1960s, making it impossible to manage the disease well. By the 1980s, home blood sugar test kits were on the market, and today, T1 patients can attach a small, discreet IoT monitor to their skin to constantly check levels and report findings and predictions to a smartphone app.
Benefits of IoT for Healthcare
The use of connected devices can enhance healthcare for patients, hospital staff, home health caregivers, and more. Here are a few of the main benefits of IoT for healthcare:
Patients can be fitted with IoT health monitors such as connected pacemakers, insulin pumps, or heart monitors to help manage chronic diseases. From afar, doctors can monitor their patients’ data and receive alerts if something appears to be wrong. Connected monitors also allow patients to better manage their own care—for example, a diabetes patient can view blood sugar readings and manage insulin infusions with the help of an app that digests all the data, makes dosage recommendations, and sends alerts.
Improving Patient Experience
For hospital patients, IoT devices can reduce wait times and allow for more customization of their experience. Some hospitals have developed their own apps to relay key information such as ER wait times and location information—and can even direct patients to the nearest open parking spaces. For family members awaiting news of a family member in surgery, some hospitals use IoT sensors to provide updates on the patient’s location and status.
Healthcare Data Management
Applications of IoT can also assist healthcare providers in managing data. IoT tracking systems can help hospitals monitor location of equipment and people. Data portals and management systems allow providers to aggregate patient information for easier access, helping to reduce human error. And applications of healthcare analytics can provide predictive recommendations for patient care, hospital management, and more.
Current Challenges for IoT in the Healthcare Industry
While the promises of healthcare IoT are many, there are several challenges facing its rapid growth. Let’s take a closer look at a few:
Like every realm of IoT application, security is a serious concern, particularly given the sensitive nature of patient information and corresponding privacy laws in place in many countries around the world. Because IoT devices spring from many different manufacturers and designers, there’s a large disparity in security features. Healthcare providers must ensure that the devices and systems they choose have secure software and firmware. To maintain privacy, they also need to utilize access management—limiting who can access each device and its data—and implement a service to monitor their network for signs of security incidents.
Combining devices and software from many different providers can prove a headache for healthcare providers. The systems might not integrate smoothly, causing data silos and confusion. And integrating systems and devices can also create more cybersecurity risks, as each point of connection represents a potential attack surface.
While the cost of individual devices will continue to fall as IoT becomes more common, there’s still a significant upfront investment for healthcare providers who want to deploy many devices and manage the data via an overarching system. Developing that system, and other proprietary healthcare apps, may be costly—and so are ongoing cybersecurity measures such as data backup and recovery systems.
6 Applications of IoT Devices for Healthcare
Connected devices of all kinds are simplifying patient care, enabling healthcare professionals to monitor patients remotely, and providing ways for facilities to better manage their data and their hospital rooms. Let’s take a look at some specific examples of IoT applications for healthcare.
Wearable devices can keep track of a patient’s heart rate, blood oxygen level, sleep habits, breathing, and other important health data. Millions of people use health monitors like the Fitbit or Apple Watch, and healthcare IoT developers are continuing to develop new use cases for wearable tech. Fall detection is one example. FallCall Solutions has developed a fall detection app for the Apple Watch, while Stanley Healthcare’s Foresite monitors a patient’s activities and uses predictive analytics to create alerts if it detects an increasing risk of falls.
Connected blood pressure monitors provide a link between patients and their doctors, and can help paint an overall picture of a patient’s health. One example is BioTelemetry’s connected blood pressure monitor, which transfers readings automatically to a secure online platform. Patients can test regularly at home and share readings easily with healthcare providers.
Like connected blood pressure monitors, glucose monitors can help patients manage their care at home and collect a helpful body of data over time. Some traditional glucose monitors can be connected to a smartphone app for data collection, and newer continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) systems such as FreeStyle Libre work by applying a wireless sensor to the patient’s arm, which can be scanned with a handheld device to get a blood sugar reading as often as the patient wants to check.
Heart rates can be an indicator of overall health, and runners and cardiac patients alike benefit from keeping track. Connected wristbands often include heart rate monitors, but the most accurate heart monitors are worn around the chest. One example is the Polar H9, which can connect to a wide variety of secondary devices via Bluetooth and ANT+. The device links with apps to plan fitness training and analyze readings, and its battery lasts up to 400 hours.
IoT developers have scrambled to create helpful applications to aid healthcare professionals in managing and combating the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic. Devices for contact tracing include Kinexon’s SafeZone, a wearable wristband that alerts wearers when they are not following social distancing protocols and tracks contact with and distance from other users.
Increasingly, hospitals are using IoT technology to better manage their resources and inpatient care. IoT devices can automate workflows, perform AI surgery, and monitor healthcare workers’ hygiene standards. One application is GE Healthcare’s AutoBed, which helps to optimize inpatient bed assignments. Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City has cut ER wait times in half by using the software, which has been called the air traffic control of hospital beds.
Smart Hospital Examples
Healthcare facilities that implement IoT and connected technologies are often termed “smart hospitals.” Let’s take a look at a few of them and how they’re successfully incorporating IoT in their day-to-day operations.
When Stanford Health Care decided to construct a new smart hospital, they listened to feedback from patients about what they would most appreciate. The new hospital’s rooms include a variety of entertainment options, along with new ways for patients to access health records and review their care. Robots with wheels transport linen and trash through the hallways, and healthcare providers have access to a plethora of patient care data from IoT health monitors. And thanks to the wealth of collected data, family members can more easily get updates about their loved ones’ status, procedures, and whereabouts.
Medical University of South Carolina
The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) utilizes digital signage outside patient rooms in the form of Apple iPads, which display patient information from EHRs and notify entering personnel of important health information like fall risk and potential infections. Using a tablet within the room, each patient can control entertainment and climate options such as lighting, thermostat, and access to updates on treatment and care. The digital plan of care application gives patients a personalized list of criteria that must be met prior to discharge. This helps motivate them to pursue mobility and pain management goals—and ultimately get to go home more quickly.
Boston Children’s Hospital
Spread out over several large buildings, Boston Children’s Hospital can be a confusing maze for patients and their family members. To make wayfinding easier, the hospital implemented a smartphone application called MyWay, which uses GPS to guide patients and visitors through the campus. The app automatically determines the quickest route to a destination within the hospital and is updated in real-time to take circumstances such as closed elevators or restrooms into account.
Niklaus Children’s Health System
Niklaus Children’s Health System developed its own Insight Location Intelligence system, which uses AI and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) connectivity to track patients, doctors, and medical supplies. The Insights system gives doctors and nurses updates about how patients are doing, including information about mobility and alerts when they fall (or even if they’re about to fall). The system also allows personnel to track usage of specific medical equipment—for example, the location of a certain oxygen tank and how often it’s being used.
The Future of Healthcare IoT
As technologies mature and improve, IoT is set to become an integral part of healthcare in the U.S. and around the world. Here’s a closer look at a few of the issues affecting IoT adoption in the healthcare sector.
Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic sparked wider interest in IoT technology and its potential for remote patient care, hospital management, and contact tracing. Healthcare professionals saw that IoT sensors for remote monitoring can bring tremendous value during a pandemic, when it’s better to keep vulnerable patients away from congregant settings like waiting rooms and doctors’ offices. And hospitals faced with an abundance of virus patients welcome the IoT technology that can help them streamline workflows, track available beds and medical equipment, and monitor the effects of new treatments.
Evolution of Telehealth
Spurred in part by the pandemic, healthcare providers around the world have incorporated telehealth into their repertoire of care services. In the U.S., telehealth visits increased by 50 percent in the first quarter of 2020, according to the CDC. Providers can access readings from home monitoring devices and meet with patients via videoconferencing platforms, in some cases eliminating the need for frequent in-person check-ups. Telehealth services can make it easier to reach patients in remote areas and offer affordable healthcare to the uninsured. While telehealth will never completely take the place of in-office visits, many believe it’s here to stay as a go-to option for routine disease management, mental health care, and other conversation-centered encounters.
Cellular Connectivity and 5G
As IoT technology continues to change the face of healthcare, developers need dependable connectivity options for their health monitors, especially those that will be deployed in remote areas. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth work well in some settings, but those technologies depend on a secondary device, such as a smartphone, for the monitor to be paired with. For mission critical healthcare devices, developers may choose cellular connectivity, either as a backup option or the primary link. As 5G becomes ubiquitous, there’s likely to be a greater shift toward cellular connectivity for healthcare IoT devices.
The introduction of 5G is another factor set to accelerate adoption of healthcare IoT. 5G’s high-speed, low-latency connectivity will enable the creation of more complex real-time health monitoring devices and management platforms. It will also allow real-time data flow between doctors at different hospitals who wish to consult with each other about a patient’s care. And 5G will link mobile units such as ambulances with healthcare providers, enabling doctors to consult with first responders regarding emergency decisions. Remote surgery is another possible application, allowing surgeons to operate on patients from a combination of VR and robots.