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Healthcare and the ‘Internet of Things’

Tue, 01/28/2014 - 11:20am
Oleg Logvinov, IEEE, Director of Special Assignments, Industrial & Power Conversion Division, STMicroelectronics

Rapid advances in connected technology promise big benefits

A revolution in healthcare is quietly brewing. The “Internet of Things”—a global system that could eventually comprise billions of devices and applications—including sensors, actuators, microcontrollers, mobile-communication devices, nano-pumps and more—will make health monitoring, diagnostics and treatment more personalized, timely and convenient, while also lowering costs.

This is the “humanization of technology.” Finally, after eras in which people often struggled to make use of unfamiliar technologies, technology in the service of healthcare will become mobile, miniature and more effective. It may be more intuitive for users, but it’s just as likely to be automated, operating quietly behind the scenes with little or no change in routine. Many devices may be worn or even embedded in the body. They’ll communicate wirelessly with applications in the cloud which could, for instance, affect the release of transdermal medication—the possibilities are endless.

One likely outcome is “ambient assisted living,” a term that describes an environment that is supported by information and communication technology (ICT) for anyone with health concerns. Connected devices may range from video cameras in the home that can detect if a person has fallen or is exhibiting atypical symptoms to embedded sensors that can read and report on vital signs. Someday, even the ability to initiate therapeutic action could be commonplace.

What advances make this possible? And what is the range of possible applications? The answers will likely transform the practice of medicine increase accessibility to high-end medical care and improve patient outcomes –while simultaneously lowering costs.

The IoT
I gave a talk recently titled, “Sensors and the Internet of Things Can Help Us Live Longer,” at an IEEE-Standards Association (IEEE-SA) workshop on the IoT in Silicon Valley. I probably should have added “live better” to the title as well. Living a long and healthy life remains one of humankind’s most cherished dreams. Today it is within our grasp.

Briefly, let me share a little background before I explain the IoT’s potential impacts on healthcare.

The IoT is a virtually infinite suite of products, technologies, systems, and services—many of the products and technologies already existing, though new ones will be developed—with new applications, integrations and business models. In a sense, the Internet offers the medium that connects devices and applications. The computing may be localized, embedded in microcontroller-enabled devices or even implanted in the human body. It may even reside in the “cloud,” when large amounts of data require greater processing power or the data must be assembled from various sources. Two-way communication completes the picture.

The potential for this convergence of technologies and systems is vast, as one can imagine, and it will drive sweeping changes in many vertical industries, from healthcare to manufacturing, from energy to smart buildings and cities.

The IoT and Healthcare
In healthcare, the possibilities are so great, that we really need to imagine a few finite use cases to prioritize and illustrate likely, near-term scenarios. Today, more than one billion adults worldwide may be classified as obese, a condition in which their weight imperils their health. Imagine a wrist or arm band that senses vital signs such as pulse, blood pressure, red blood cell counts, and glucose and cholesterol levels—can even monitor activity levels. If walking is a prescribed benefit, the user might be reminded to do so. If medications should be taken at intervals, the user might be alerted to optimal timing. Home, office or mobile ICT devices like smartphones, tablets, laptops and computers might provide the robust connectivity needed for accessing a patient’s medical history, uploaded by a medical professional or fitness advisor, where the medical device could synthesize it into health advisories or alerts.

Alternatively, consider the nearly one billion humans worldwide who need disease management. Vital-sign monitoring of patients by miniature, even embedded devices, could track pre-op or post-trauma conditions, or simply track ongoing values and trends in the symptoms of various conditions. Medication could be released into the body by transdermal nano-pumps. Saliva or urine samples could be tested by real-time miniature home labs.

The Upshot
The likely outcome of these advancements is greater access to better patient care, reduced costs and, ultimately, longer, healthier lives due to the disease prevention and management. Parents could monitor their children’s progress or keep tabs on elderly parents. An abrupt change in a patient’s health would lead to an automated alert to multiple parties, saving time, and lives.

When you add a connected environment around a patient equipped with these technologies—like a “connected home” that can detect light, temperature, pressure on a bed, etc.—the “ambient living” concept really begins to take shape. In fact, some of these developments are already a reality.

As one might expect, the far-reaching nature of the potential outcomes for the IoT and healthcare presents challenges. Many domains—specialized realms of technology—must be bridged by standards yet to be written. But progress is being made. In late 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognized multiple standards that collectively help support medical-device interoperability and cyber security. Among the 25 standards listed, 12 originate from within the IEEE 11073™ family of standards for medical-device communication. In fact, a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study commissioned by the West Health Institute identified more than $30 billion of annual costs to the U.S. healthcare system because of the lack of medical-device interoperability. This is a clear example of how IEEE-SA’s standards work saves consumers substantial amounts of money.

As no one entity will have the expertise or capital to develop this emerging vision of the IoT and its application across so many vertical markets, an ecosystem of partners must evolve to bring products and services to market. But there’s little doubt that advancements now in the works will revolutionize medicine, as it has computing and communications. Finally, the “humanization of technology” will offer that longer, better life we’ve all dreamed of.

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