IoT in healthcare: Are we moving to self-care?

The rise in IoT sees healthcare moving to the next age – of empowering the patient.

Healthcare and technology have gone hand in hand for centuries. From simple bandages used as far back as Ancient Greece to modern day biological imaging, medical progress has been continually driven by technological innovation. In recent years, the healthcare industry has also shown a willingness to embrace technologies that have already proven advantageous in other business sectors. Telemedicine, for example, which uses telecommunications to provide remote healthcare, was pre-empted by a multitude of other industries using telecoms to improve their accessibility and productivity. Now, the healthcare sector is hoping to lead the way in terms of another form of technology adoption: the Internet of Things (IoT).

The Internet of Things is predicted to revolutionise many aspects of our daily lives, promising new conveniences and profound changes. And this is hardly surprising given the huge explosion in IoT devices expected to occur over the next few years. 6.4 billion connected devices are predicted to be in use by 2016, with this figure set to hit 20.8 billion by 2020. One of the IoT growth areas is likely to be in healthcare. Possible application for the Internet of Things within the health profession include using wearable devices to carry out remote patient monitoring and smart beds that tell professionals when patients are attempting to get up.

Less obviously, the Internet of Things is being used to improve confidence in the drug supply chain. The Food and Drug Administration has added Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags to medication containers so that healthcare sector can monitor the supply process more accurately. Moreover, it is not just the IoT devices themselves that are proving revolutionary in the healthcare industry. More devices mean more data, which means more information for health professionals to work with.

Aside from just helping medical staff, however, the Internet of Things could enable patients to help themselves. Self-care is increasingly being viewed as the method for improving the general health of the population and reducing the strain placed on the UK’s public health service. NHS trusts recorded a funding shortfall of £485 million in the first quarter of 2015/16 and with further government cuts being planned, a new form of healthcare is gaining traction. Already, patients are taking advantage of IoT devices to take control of their health. Remote monitoring by body-worn sensors, for example, lets patients keep track of their vital signs, whether that’s diabetes sufferers checking their glucose levels or a sensor-based baby monitor. The information collected by the IoT can be uploaded to the cloud and made easily available to your medical practitioner for more accurate diagnosis – highlighting that self-care doesn’t mean poorer care.

For Dr Pete Smith, GP in Kingston-Upon-Thames, self-care is about empowering both doctors and patients.

“Self-care is crucial in addressing demand in practices” he said. “It can also help with referrals, patient satisfaction and service quality. Most of our patients don’t want to take time out of their day to visit the surgery; sometimes all they need is the confidence and reassurance to enable them to look after their own health, which empowers them and helps the practice.”

Another important aspect of IoT healthcare is the way in which technology can be used to automate processes and, hence, reduce the likelihood of human error. IoT devices can monitor, record and store patient data instantly and enable it to be shared amongst the necessary healthcare professionals, making collaboration a much smoother process. Automatic medication dispensers are also being developed for the home that provide audio and visual reminders for patients and supply the correct dosage – once again, enabling individuals to administer their own care more effectively.

The opportunities for IoT healthcare, and self-care in particular, may be high, but that does not mean that challenges are not also likely. Privacy concerns, of great importance for the Internet of Things generally, are intensified by the sensitive nature of healthcare data. The question of how IoT data is transferred and stored still needs to be answered before the public is likely to grant widespread acceptance to the Internet of Things. Securing devices is also critical. Much has been made of the devastating impact of hacking connected cars and webcams, but cyberattacks on medical devices could have similarly harmful outcomes. Other barriers to healthcare IoT include ensuring that the network infrastructure is robust enough to handle the mass of data and public perception – it will take time to convince individuals that self-care is as effective as visiting their GP.

It does, however, seem only a matter of time before the Internet of Things revolution comes to healthcare. Whether it’s through more efficient data capture at clinics and hospitals or improvements in self-care, IoT devices promise a number of improvements to patient health. By improving productivity and efficiency in the industry, the Internet of Things could save time, money and even people’s lives.