SAP's Connected Health platform bids to transform heath
(Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license.)

If the Internet of Things (IoT) represents an upcoming revolution for businesses, then healthcare looks set to be one of the sectors that will experience the greatest change.

 The IoT age may be in its infancy, but the opportunities are already clear as far as healthcare is concerned. This will likely permeate all levels from procurement and management of equipment and services through to deployment and use of tools in hospital, at the GP and at home, and, inevitably, to the experiences and outcomes we all have as users of healthcare services.

There is much to gain from the use of IoT in healthcare, and also much for those who procure, deploy and regulate services to consider. It’s a big learning curve, but the rewards could be legion.

The need

The Nuffield Trust reports in its Health and social care priorities for the Government: 2015–2020  that NHS finances are at a tipping point with a predicted £2 billion deficit by the end of the 2015/16 financial year. We know that the UK has an ageing population – The Office for Budget Responsibility says that by 2065, 26 percent of the population of England and Wales will be over 65, and this is just one of the factors which results in increased costs of healthcare.

Measures which improve both the quality and timeliness of care, and offer good value for money and are vital. Proponents of the Internet of Things believe it can achieve on all fronts. So does the UK Government whose Chief Scientific Advisor published a report on IoT last year.

The Internet of Things: making the most of the Second Digital Revolution suggests that the IoT has a part to play in a number of health contexts and is clear that “The Internet of Things could help shift healthcare from cure to prevention, and give people greater control over decisions affecting their wellbeing.”

This isn’t just wishful thinking. There are many examples of the IoT doing just this. In just one case a telemedicine hub, set up by Cisco at Airedale NHS Trust in Keighley West Yorkshire, connected over 1,000 patients in residential and nursing homes to medics via secure video links for face to face consultations. Hospital admissions fell by 45 percent, length of stay by 39 percent, hospital bed days by 60 percent and A&E use by almost 70 percent.

Cost savings

While there will be inevitable development and deployment costs, there are also cost savings to be made from IoT in healthcare.

The Cisco trial at Airedale generated a direct saving of £330,000 to the Trust and indirect opportunity cost of £1 million, while another Cisco trial in a different hospital increased patient contact time from 3 to 60 percent and retrieved more than 8,000 clinical hours. In this latter case a secure wireless infrastructure and staff tracking was set up alongside workflow restructuring to free senior nursing staff from their desks, enable easy location of clinicians close to emergency cases and improve workflow management.

Not just in hospital

The potential for IoT in healthcare exists way beyond traditional environments. There are already many examples of IoT-based implementations for the home and the mobile individual which integrate with hospital based systems. These help people with specific conditions, or who are at risk (such as older people or those with mental health conditions), to be monitored and helped outside of the hospital system.

Many challenges

To implement the IoT successfully in a healthcare world, which embraces hospital and home and which caters for the ill and the ‘wellness’ markets, a lot of challenges need to be overcome. Many are technical, some are operational.

Big data

A central technical underpinning of an IoT infrastructure is the management and interpretation of big data. Without sophisticated systems in place to handle the data and translate it into knowledge and understanding, the data itself has little use.

Regulation and procurement standards

Hospitals already collect lots of data from patients using a range of equipment, but often it is not mutually compatible and can’t be integrate into a single patient centric electronic record. This needs to change, and will likely mean companies developing shared open standards. These in turn will need to be regulated by governments and their agencies, and procurement standards put in place. Interoperability between as well as within institutions is vital.

Data security

An IoT deployment can collect huge amounts of information, and transmit this via a number of devices and across a range of communications networks and channels to central collection and analysis points. Some of these will be public channels such as the mobile phone network. Clear regulation and strong policies need to be in place to protect what is personal rather than aggregated data about a person’s health.

New ways of working

As IoT becomes more widespread in healthcare situations professionals may need to adopt new ways of working including around workflows, location and a willingness to be tracked in the workplace.

A connected future for health

There are clearly still numerous nuts to crack to ensure IoT works to its maximum efficiency for healthcare. But the prize, of better care, more efficient data management, improved use of financial resources and increased wellbeing, is a great one.