Editorial Feature

Bringing the Internet of Things into the Hospital

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The Internet of Things (IoT) are connected devices, often involving sensors, and they are going to change healthcare for the better - although this does raise concerns about privacy and security. Connected devices were previously a proprietary technology, whereas IoT is by definition more open and agnostic.

IoT broadens and quickens communication from one device to another and enables automated analytics to make more decisions without the need for human intervention. Think about a sensor that enables the temperature in a room to go up when it falls below a certain degree, and imagine that in a hospital room with an immune-compromised patient. Another of the vast possible applications is having patients wear a radio frequency tag so their whereabouts are always known.

The belief is that IoT will grow from $32.47 billion in 2015 to $163.24 billion by 2020.

IoT's Benefits for the Medical Sector

In the sub-sector of medicine, IoT can provide faster processes with fewer errors, with an overall reduction of cost. For example, devices that collect patients’ vital signs, medication intake, and ventilator requirements and usage patterns could be channeled to remote devices worn by clinicians. This data could also be sent to electronic medical records (EMR) systems for instant updates, flagging inconsistent data, greater standardization of information retrieval, which would provide searching and retrieving capabilities and up-to-the-minute alterations of patient care such as oxygen or pain support.

Another enormous benefit could occur in-home care - connected systems could enable care teams to triage patients at home and possibly prevent unnecessary admissions or premature admissions to hospitals and skilled nursing facilities.

Wireless and mobile devices can also continue to empower patients to take charge of their own healthcare, as they self-monitor signals such as blood sugar levels in the case of diabetes. As part of this trend, patients will undoubtedly begin to communicate more with providers through wireless channels. This puts pressure on providers to alter modes of behavior, as conversations may be more frequent than talks at appointments, scheduled weeks, or months in advance.

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Creating Guidelines for IoT

With no broad regulation on such sweeping technology, people can become concerned. In the U.S. the National Institute of Standards and Technology is working on guidelines to ensure security around connected medical devices, such as insulin pumps. An international public/private partnership to develop ICT/telecom standards called ITU-T met in June of 2015 on its Global Standards Initiative on the Internet of Things (IoT-GSI).

The idea is to begin to develop technical standards for IoT globally that would, in part, allow more worldwide interoperability of systems and devices, so that they could be designed with broad and global use in mind.

The ITU defines IoT as: “a global infrastructure for the information society, enabling advanced services by interconnecting (physical and virtual) things based on existing and evolving interoperable information and communication technologies.”

Some of the issues being discussed at this and other meetings involving IoT are, ensuring common languages for devices - making them “tunable” to a channel that can be understood by other devices or a facilities’ systems. Creating more modular systems when possible to enable easier upgrades to systems that support common standards, and ensuring through accountability measures that healthcare information remains private (e.g., encrypted or some such protective layer) even when it is being transmitted outside of a network or facility with firewalls.

Compatibility is going to expand so that wireless devices’ data travels outside of a hospital or network walls at frequencies up to 5 GHz, but how this is going to be accomplished is not clear.

Sources and Further Reading

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