Modern medicine and the healthcare industry are evolving every day. With new research findings, medical investment, improved medications, better-connected hospitals, and more robust information sharing between doctors and patients, global life expectancy has consistently risen in recent decades. But as any emergency room nurse can tell you, there is still much room for improvement in keeping people healthy, regardless of their financial standing, insurance provider, or location.
Before the internet and the Internet of Things (IoT), patients and doctors had limited interactions with limited amounts of information. The pandemic kickstarted the push toward digitization for all industries, especially healthcare. Telemedicine became a norm, remote monitoring of patients grew in popularity, and hospitals began tracking people's movement and their vital signs (temperature) through hospitals with the assistance of IoT and artificial intelligence (AI).
5G phone networks are now successfully merged into modern society, and the ability of remotely connected IoT devices to provide real-time information ingrained the medical culture shift towards digitization. The interconnectedness of contactless treatments, health monitoring, and medical sensor systems has changed how medicine gets done for the better throughout the healthcare industry, where smart hospitals are only the beginning.
Web-connected wearable devices, like fitness trackers, monitor critical patient information such as blood pressure, heart rate, glucose levels (glucometer), etc. The value to patients is clear, more consistent health monitoring via wearables and better information about what is going on in their bodies. For patients with diabetes, for example, the benefit is life-changing.
In the past, diabetic patients would have to test their blood glucose levels throughout the day by pricking their fingers and taking a live blood sample. This was not only inconvenient and painful but potentially unsanitary. Consider a person with diabetes in a bustling city needing to find a public restroom or bench to prick their finger and take a blood sample. This could make the patient more prone to illness as they had to break skin in a public setting, sometimes in dirty or busy streets.
With modern web-connected glucometers installed in the patient's skin, diabetics have accurate real-time data about their blood glucose levels. The data is sent to their smartphone, smartwatch, and even their doctor or family member with access to the data. People with diabetes using IoT no longer have to prick their skin to take a blood sample and can be confident of their glucose levels at all times. This saves them consistent amounts of time and stress. Living with diabetes is already complicated, so streamlining the glucose monitoring process has been a great benefit of IoT for patients.
It isn't just diabetics who IoT is helping keep healthy. The elderly community is benefitting from IoT technology as well. With connected devices, caregivers can remotely monitor various aspects of an elder's health. For instance, devices with GPS are currently used to monitor a patient's real-time location. Health monitoring wearables worn by an elder patient can transmit data on blood pressure, pulse, blood oxygen levels, temperature, activity, location, and more.
For patients with dementia, Alzheimer's, or other memory issues, this is especially important. If a patient goes missing and their caregiver or family member cannot find them, a GPS-connected device will transmit their location so they can be found and brought home, hopefully safely. Or, if a patient's location has not moved even a few feet in several hours, caregivers or emergency personnel can be alerted. The patient could be distressed, have fallen, or need emergency medical services. Elders are our living ancestors, and the better society can care for them with the help of IoT data, the more fulfilling their golden years will be.
By prescribing wearables and other home health monitoring, physicians can better track a patient's health with embedded IoT devices. In the past, patients and doctors saw one another seldom and usually only when a patient was ill. Most people have probably been asked, "when was the last time you had a physical?" or, "have you been in for your yearly checkup yet?". This meant long gaps between doctor visits unless something went wrong. But this is not ideal for long-term healthcare as many illnesses develop unnoticed for years.
IoT allows medical professionals to have a more observant relationship with their patients. The more information a physician has about a particular patient's situation, the better care they can provide for that individual. Like most things, healthcare isn't "one size fits all." All patients have different needs, allergies, and ideas about the proper course of treatment. IoT provides better information for medical professionals, which is a good thing. Privacy is an essential concern in the medical industry, so the right IoT system is vital, as each device is a potential point of attack for hackers or bad actors if not adequately secured.
Aside from actively monitoring patients' health, there are other areas where IoT is changing the medical industry. Devices with embedded IoT sensors are now used to monitor the location of medical equipment like oxygen pumps, wheelchairs, hospital beds, defibrillators, nebulizers, prescriptions, surgery equipment, and even patients & physicians themselves.
Busy hospitals are using AI and IoT sensors to track the movement of patients, personnel, and people throughout their ecosystems. This allows for a better understanding of how people and things move through a hospital so plans can be made to optimize floor space and movement. Suppose the AI sees a consistent bottleneck down an emergency room hallway due to unused beds being in the way. In that case, the system can automatically alert hospital staff to move the equipment to clear the path for emergency room operations.
When faced with making life-or-death decisions, the speed at which a conclusion can be made and acted on is critical. IoT enhances how hospitals are managed, providing a better overall experience for physicians, patients, and visitors. Adoption across the hospital management industry is taking time, but as the benefits of IoT are realized by all actors within the medical community, the time until all hospitals are using sensor data is near. The value to patients and staff is too powerful to ignore.
Health insurance companies stand to benefit significantly when it comes to how IoT is changing the face of modern healthcare. Insurance providers can leverage data captured by IoT through health monitoring devices to understand their customers better and improve their side of the claims and underwriting process. IoT can help insurance companies minimize fraud as they have better information about their clients, hospitals, medical facilities, equipment, medication delivery, and more.
IoT is particularly useful for fraud claim detection and finding prospects for underwriting operations. It is so beneficial to insurers that some are beginning to provide incentives to customers for sharing their health data generated through a wide range of IoT devices. For example, insurance providers may reward their customers with lower insurance premiums if they share data that they exercise 3-5 days a week for more than 30 minutes. This illustrates, via the received IoT sensor data of a wearable, that a customer is active and doing their part to stay healthy.
Generally speaking, an insurance company would rather insure a physically active client who is more likely to pay a lower premium than someone who doesn't exercise or refuses to wear a fitness tracker. This is one example of how health insurance providers can benefit from IoT.
How data is received and utilized happens typically in 4 phases and must avoid the traditional cloud storage structure due to latency concerns.
Phase 1: deploy interconnected IoT devices with embedded sensors, detectors, monitors, actuators, cameras, thermometers, etc. These are the devices throughout a hospital that, for example, capture various types of pertinent data.
Phase 2: Data received from IoT sensors will be hard data and require compiling or conversion into a digestible digital format so that the IoT platform can process it.
Phase 3: The data is then transmitted via the web, but not to a traditional cloud server farm which could be thousands of miles from where the data was generated (the hospital). Instead, data is transmitted via an edge cloud to a localized edge cluster where it is pre-processed and standardized.
Phase 4: The IoT platform receives the final data at the edge and is analyzed using artificial intelligence and advanced analytics. The outcome of the data can then be acted on, either automatically by the system itself or via a human decision based on the analyzed data.
Let's review. The most considerable advantages of IoT in healthcare are:
The cost of sensors has been falling in recent years, and the proliferation of 5G has allowed them to work well within existing medical networks. But not all IoT platforms are appropriately designed for the data-intensive ecosystems the medical world consists of.
IoT in healthcare isn’t without challenges. Utilizing IoT for practical and secure healthcare requires a robust ecosystem capable of handling the large amount of data generated by all happenings within a hospital. More connected devices mean more points of attack for hackers and malicious actors. Considering the amount of personal and private data stored and used by the medical profession, only the most cutting-edge IoT platform technology will work.
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