Improving Patient Care With The IoT

With increased connectivity and sensor use, healthcare is embracing IoT


Away from being able to change the temperature in your house or restocking your fridge if you've run out of something, the Internet of Things (IoT) is largely unknown amongst the general population. The potential it has, though, is immeasurable, and we are undoubtedly going to be seeing the full effects of it in the coming years, when it will become considerably more prominent for every person.

However, we are already beginning to see its importance in probably the most important area of our lives right now; Healthcare.

The use of the IoT in healthcare was put on the map by the work of the Michael J Fox foundation and Intel, who have begun to give sensor-filled wristbands to those suffering from Parkinson's Disease with the idea of collecting data about the disease 24 hours a day across millions of patients. This data is then fed back through the Cloud where it can be analyzed to help identify new potential treatments.

This project started in 2014 and is ongoing, but since its inception, the use of similar technologies across the world has expanded rapidly. The use of the IoT in healthcare has even been predicted by to be worth $117 billion by 2020. It is for this reason that AI and smart systems, like the IBM Watson, have come about, with the large number of sensors and vast amounts of data created being searchable and useable in a simple system.

One of the key issues with healthcare at the moment is that it is labor intensive and the smallest human error can have devastating consequences. The IoT has the potential to alleviate many of these pressures from the healthcare industry. Some hospitals have already begun to implement 'smart beds' that can detect whether or not they are occupied. They can also help to support patients in the most comfortable position without the need for manual adjustment. This frees nurses and health practitioners from fairly mundane tasks and allows for both more practical treatments and meaningful face-time with patients.

Whilst the use of the IoT in hospitals is becoming more popular, arguably its use outside of the hospital setting is where it is going to have the most impact. Similar to the work done by Intel and the Michael J Fox foundation, the ability to track health metrics in a relaxed, home setting all the time makes diagnosis and monitoring more effective.

Not only this, but with the financial pressures on healthcare providers it allows them to care for patients without incurring the costs that come from having them in a hospital bed, estimated to be $1,700 daily. Often the reason for extended hospital stays is not for constant treatment, but simply for monitoring. With intelligent sensors feeding data back to doctors, it means the patient is in a more comfortable environment and the healthcare provider spends less money.

It may also help to avoid issues revolving around the use of pharmaceuticals, both allowing doctors to make sure that complete courses of medicines are taken, and that the drugs being used are genuine.

The size of the global counterfeit pharmaceuticals market is almost impossible to establish, but it is generally understood that the problem is increasing. Operation Pangea, Interpol's counterfeit pharma task force, seized 2.4 million fake medicines in 2011, and that number surged to 20.7 million in 2015. To help tackle this problem the FDA set out guidelines for RFID tags to be used on pharmaceuticals, helping to show where they came from and their authenticity. This information can be automatically scanned at every stage of the supply chain, showing the end user exactly where their medication has come from. If these were to work in the same way as we have previously seen with the RFID tags on bottles of spirits, each would have be unique and non-reproducible, making counterfeiting almost impossible.

Similarly, when it comes to the actual taking of medication, the IoT and smart sensors could help to make sure patients are actually taking theirs. It is a technology being developed by WuXi PharmaTech and TruTag Technologies, who are developing smart pills that know when they are taken, making sure that full courses are being taken and mitigating doctors and pharmaceutical companies from fraudulent court cases. Aside from the inconvenience of strung out cases, it will also drive down overhead costs, with these savings potentially being handed down to patients. 

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