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Realising the benefits of IoT in healthcare

IoT Blog | January, 2018
 
Jon Lee-Davey

Jon Lee-Davey

Healthcare Lead, Vodafone IoT


Realising the benefits of IoT in healthcare

The Internet of Things (IoT) is having a huge impact on many industries. But there are few places where its potential benefits are as significant as they are in healthcare: it can improve patient outcomes, the quality of life of patients and enable new approaches in precision medicine.

IoT is transforming the healthcare industry

We’re already seeing it in action. Smart sensors are being used in a range of innovative healthcare devices—including inhalers and ingestible smart pills, which monitor patients’ adherence to their medication schedules. Sensors can even be embedded in human skin, to continuously monitor blood glucose in people with diabetes, reducing the need for regular needle sticks.

Some healthcare organisations are using IoT to improve their day-to-day operations. For example, a healthcare provider in New Zealand is leveraging IoT technology to improve the effectiveness of its ambulance service1. Dispatchers receive real-time updates on the location of nearby ambulances and hospitals with capacity to take patients. The patient’s condition can be tracked and transmitted to the hospital, so that medical staff are prepared with the right resources for the patient’s arrival and can deliver better treatment. This also helps the hospital with timing and prioritisation, so staff can maximise outcomes for all patients more effectively.

The data generated by IoT is also shaping the future of healthcare. IoT sensors can collect vast amounts of patient data, and with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning this data can be analysed to produce powerful insights. For example, software has been developed which can help diagnose cancer and disease—often with greater accuracy than medical professionals. And pharmaceutical companies can gather better clinical trial data, speeding up new drug and treatment development.

Consequently, we’ve seen strong year-on-year growth in IoT adoption since we started publishing the Barometer.2 But despite exciting developments being pioneered in IoT and healthcare, some organisations are holding back. Why is that, and what can be done to help realise the enormous potential upside?

What are the barriers to adoption?

The healthcare industry faces some understandable challenges when it comes to IoT adoption for the treatment of patients: funding, privacy and security.

In both the public and private sectors, a lack of sustainable funding sources and reimbursement mechanisms can be an obstacle to any innovation. It’s not just the upfront investment in new IoT devices that needs to be considered. There can also be new associated expenses—managed service costs, staff training, and the costs of overhauling legacy infrastructure. In the long-term, organisations want assurance that this expenditure is going to be reimbursed—especially if IoT can result in fewer patient visits, more cost-effective use of medication and fewer procedures.

In many countries, healthcare organisations must comply with strict legislation, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the US, to help ensure the protection of personal data. Healthcare IoT devices can capture a great amount of data—including highly sensitive patient information. Securing this data and ensuring that devices and the connected applications are compliant is critical to developing IoT solutions in healthcare.

"Although the benefits of IoT in healthcare have been well documented, it has been difficult for healthcare organisations to move beyond proof of concepts and trials to scalable IoT deployments. Long-standing barriers of funding and reimbursement, market fragmentation and regulation have stood in the way."

Analysys Mason,
Vodafone 2017/18 IoT Barometer.3
The broader issue of cybersecurity is important for any industry considering IoT adoption; but it’s of particular concern to healthcare organisations—and for good reason. If a malicious cyber-attacker gained access to highly sensitive information, or gained control of medical equipment that is providing treatment to patients, the consequences could be severe.

But although these concerns are valid, they’re high on the list of things that organisations plan to address. Asked to look ahead five years, 72% of adopters said they expect security and privacy concerns will be greatly reduced.4 And they’re already taking steps to achieve this: they are training staff (48%), actively scanning for vulnerabilities (40%) and having devices certified (35%).5 Increased regulation and growing customer expectations are pushing companies to be more transparent about what data they capture, what they do with it and how they secure it. And while funding remains a challenge for some, many organisations are realising that the long-term gains can outweigh the initial costs. The adoption of value-based healthcare, shifting towards an outcome based payment model, is helping to address the funding challenge.

The future is exciting

The latest Barometer shows that not only are more healthcare organisations using IoT, they are expanding their programmes. 44% now have more than 1,000 connected devices—up 22% from 2016.6 This shows that irrespective of the barriers, they are outweighed by the massive potential of IoT, and companies of all sizes throughout the healthcare industry are overcoming them.

Low power, wide area network (LPWAN) technologies such as Narrowband-IoT are making connectivity more affordable and accessible for healthcare organisations, while also offering greater network coverage. The electronics used in IoT is getting cheaper and performance is improving, so devices are smaller and batteries are lasting longer. The availability of cloud-based tools is helping to simplify and accelerate application development. All of these factors are driving IoT adoption.

The need for greater oversight and control of IoT systems and the data that they gather—combined with the increasing number of devices—is likely to drive more companies to start using a managed IoT connectivity platform. This can provide control over connectivity and the capacity to handle usage data from vast numbers of devices. They offer portals that give oversight of all connected assets, making IoT solutions easier to manage. That means IoT programmes can be rolled out securely, reliably and cost-effectively at any scale.

Over the next few years, we’ll see increasing numbers of healthcare providers tackling these challenges head-on, and taking strides to increase their adoption of IoT. As this happens, we’ll begin to see the massive potential of this technology. IoT will help medical organisations to improve outcomes for patients, make more accurate diagnoses, monitor medication adherence and improve the wellbeing of citizens around the world.

The future for IoT in healthcare is exciting. Ready?

Find out more:

1 Vodafone, IoT Barometer 2017/2018, pg 12.

2 Vodafone, IoT Barometer 2017/2018, pg 12. 

3 Vodafone, IoT Barometer 2017/2018, pg 12.

4 Vodafone, IoT Barometer 2017/2018, pg 30. 

5 Vodafone, IoT Barometer 2017/2018, pg 32.

6 Vodafone, IoT Barometer 2017/2018, pg 12.

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