We’ve written on PublicTechViews.com about how the Internet of Things(IoT) can improve sustainability, but surely it’s not really applicable to healthcare? Well, yes it is. In fact, the IoT is already having an impact on healthcare, and is likely to have a greater one over the next few years, especially as healthcare resources get tighter.
Early uses of IoT in healthcare
IoT refers to devices connected to the internet, and working to run systems. From large networks changing whole cities through to your smartphone, all these are part of the IoT. As we’ve said before, IoT works best when it works with people, and its use is convenient and makes life easier. So perhaps it’s not surprising to hear that one of its earliest uses in healthcare works by collecting data without interfering in anyone’s day to day activity.
This use is in monitoring hand-washing. Sounds trivial? Well, maybe in itself, but of course better hand hygiene can help prevent the spread of hospital-acquired infection, which is a huge health issue, as well as being a major resource issue for hospitals. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that hand-washing only occurs 55% of the time. But if staff wear badges that automatically register each room entry and exit, and the use of soap or sanitiser dispensers, then hand-washing can be monitored without affecting hospital processes. We expect the next step to be automatic reminders to staff passing by without hand-washing.
Large ‘things’ or small?
There is huge potential for hospital machines to be connected to the IoT. Whether huge MRI machines, CT scanners, or just blood pressure monitors, how much simpler would it be if they were all connected and data was automatically available to those who needed it?
And it’s not just large machines and complex information. One of the biggest causes of errors of medication is lack of access to patient notes, especially among ‘frequent flyers’, those with chronic long-term illnesses, who use health services frequently, seeing multiple providers in many different locations. It can take several months for notes from different places to catch up with the patient, and in the meantime, there are many things that could have gone wrong. If the patient wore a wristband containing all their information, there would be many fewer chances for mistakes to happen, as a check could be made swiftly and immediately.
It could also be used to improve discharge management, as discharged patients could be monitored remotely, especially if they lived alone. Rather than a nurse having to visit every day, checks could be made remotely, and any problems referred immediately to a nurse or doctor. Similarly, the technology offers great potential for helping patients with diabetes and similar diseases to manage their own illnesses, backed up by medical support as and when necessary.
There are even sensors being developed that are small enough to be ingested, that can accurately predict the chances of becoming ill. This opens up a world of preventive medicine, particularly in early cancer and coronary heart disease detection, where symptoms often only show late in the progress of the disease. Decisions will still have to be made about who is at enough risk to benefit from these micro-sensors, but this technology does look like it has huge potential to save lives.
Potential problem areas
Of course there are issues with the use of the IoT, including about standardisation and scalability. However, our view is that these become less important as the use of cloud-based systems spreads, allowing increased connectivity from multiple devices. But the most important question, as with any application of technology in healthcare, is about data security and trust. As we’ve remarked before, if people don’t like and trust the apps and technology, they won’t use them.
Although the use of the IoT in healthcare offers significant benefits, many people have also raised concerns about the potential for its use to feel like ‘Big Brother’, with staff and patients being monitored all the time. The challenge is to persuade potential users that the benefits outweigh the downsides. With huge benefits available in patient welfare and well-being, as well as in healthcare resource requirements, it’s surely time that governments and healthcare systems everywhere turned their attention to this argument, and started to win it. As resources available for healthcare get ever tighter, it begins to look as if there is no other way.