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The internet has been responsible for many exciting developments, but the most important are in the realm of healthcare. The gadgets that have emerged are poised to revolutionize medicine and change everything from patient health monitoring to the way treatments are administered. Perhaps most exciting is the way increased connectivity has opened doors for a worldwide system of medicine unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
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The Internet of Things and Healthcare
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a term used to describe advanced devices and systems that connect and share information directly with other devices and the cloud. The demand and development of connective technologies has risen in recent years, and companies have produced a wide range of consumer-facing devices and gadgets designed for specific industries.
The healthcare industry holds the greatest potential for advancement when combined with IoT technology. Having the right information at the right time is critical in the medical field, and the IoT makes the gathering and transferring of information much more efficient.
Doctors are able to quickly and easily access relevant patient information, including medical history and bodily stats like blood pressure, heart rate, and blood glucose levels. This tremendously improves the quality of information and patient care.
While technology continues to develop in this field, there are three key areas of healthcare in which IoT technology has made the greatest impact so far:
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1. Remote Monitoring
Thanks to an emphasis on preventive care and readmission prevention, remote monitoring devices are becoming increasingly popular in healthcare. Patients used to be monitored in hospitals and healthcare facilities, but remote monitoring devices allow patients to be monitored at home or on the go. These devices allow physicians to track and monitor patients’ health stats, activity, and drug consumption with marginal interruption.
Elderly patients may see the largest benefit from remote monitoring technologies. A simple connected device can monitor an elderly patient’s location, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and more — all from the comfort of his or her own home.
For example, Healthsense — a company aimed at keeping seniors living independently and safely within their homes — offers a monitoring system called eNeighbor, which uses sensors on the patient and throughout the home to detect falls, wandering, and even missed medication. Additionally, the system includes an emergency call pendant, allowing patients to call for help if needed.
Telemedicine also allows more secluded and underserved communities access to healthcare through connected devices such as InTouch Health. The FDA-approved platform allows doctors to conduct real-time clinical consultations via a roving robot. Doctors can remotely guide the device using an iPad and consult with patients through the robot’s video-conferencing screen mounted near the top.
Other notable remote monitoring devices include micro cameras in the form of edible pills that allow doctors to remotely observe a patient’s internal conditions and diagnose problems without exploratory surgery. Bed sensors placed under mattresses can measure heart rate, breathing, and sleep patterns. Holistic central monitoring systems like Independa easily connect various monitoring devices to one integrated system.
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2. Wearable Technology
The Internet of Things doesn’t just benefit those who are seriously ill or elderly, though. A wave of wearable devices hit the market a few years back targeting fitness-minded consumers.
Since then, the technology and functionality of wearable devices has expanded beyond calorie trackers and mini pedometers, and healthcare and insurance companies are recognizing the connectivity and health benefits that wearables offer.
Similar to remote monitoring devices, insurance companies can help their customers prevent illness, injury, and subsequent hospital visits by encouraging individuals to track and monitor their own health with wearables. With timely and insightful data presented in an intuitive manner, wearables can inspire a consumer to eat healthier, be more active, and stay in tune with his body’s behavior.
Companies like Humana and UnitedHealthcare offer health discounts to companies that actively deploy and use wearables to measure fitness levels and promote healthy living among their employees.
In the past year, we’ve seen wearables expand beyond the commercialized fitness bands and into more versatile designs and products.
For example, OMsignal offers a machine-washable T-shirt embedded with sensors designed to measure an individual’s vital signs and send him alerts through a connected device when he needs to rest or relax.
LifeBeacon has developed a medical alert pendant that connects through cellular signal and uses GPS technology, expanding the functionality of the device to wherever it’s worn rather than simply the home.
Additionally, Google Glass is already poised to disrupt the healthcare field. Doctors wearing Google Glass can access a patient’s electronic medical records through voice commands during an examination, and surgeons can project a patient’s vital signs while operating.
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3. Information Exchange
Now that consumers can access their personal health data with a swipe on their smartwatch, they’re expecting the same easy access to their health records. The mandates for electronic medical records has accelerated the development of cloud-based technology, and now patient medical records are gathered, shared, and housed in the cloud so healthcare professionals can access up-to-date information at the right time.
Patients no longer have to call the doctor’s office to request to have paper medical records faxed over. Now, healthcare professionals around the world can easily access patients’ medical history, diagnoses, and treatments within minutes of their arrival.
This access is extremely important, especially in medical emergencies when time is of the essence. Cloud-based records also help reduce the likelihood of errors, such as duplicate tests or a healthcare professional administering the wrong drugs.
As the connected health industry continues to expand in the coming years, sources of information will broaden, offering doctors access to useful patient information and providing patients with a more personalized healthcare experience.
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The Future of Connected Health
With companies and products constantly entering the market, the future of connected health looks bright. Investors sank $282 million into sensors and smart devices in 2013 alone, so in the next few years, we’re going to see even more new technology shake up the industry.
- 3-D Printing: Personalized hearing aids, prosthetics, and braces are only the beginning for this medium. Researchers are also working on printing live tissue for skin grafts, cartilage, and organs.
- Brain Computer Interfaces: Companies like InteraXon and NeuroSky have made wireless headsets that can monitor brainwave activity and teach you to manage your mind. Gathered data and suggested activities can guide users to train their concentration, achieve real relaxation, and learn. This type of technology is also being developed to treat Alzheimer’s disease and manage chronic pain.
- Robotics: Expect service robots to perform tasks like distributing patient medications or picking up dirty laundry as early as next year. Additionally, robotic exoskeletons — such as the one developed by Ekso Bionics — are being introduced to help paraplegics stand and walk independently.
- Smart Medicine Dispensing: Doctors and patients can easily track compliance with prescription medication through devices like Philips Medication Dispensing Service, which aims to eliminate medication sorting and dispensing errors. Divert-X is another dispenser being developed to tell physicians when and where patients are accessing prescription drugs in real time to hopefully cut down on prescription drug abuse and addiction.
While healthcare seems primed to adopt and implement these new connective devices and technologies, the industry is currently hindered by the endless regulations and red tape surrounding new products.
Some influential companies like Google are hesitant to enter the healthcare device and technology space because of the heavy regulations imposed on new products. To clear the way for these cutting-edge technologies, redefine the way medicine is practiced, and improve patient outcome and quality of life, we have to simplify the regulatory process.
The partnership between the IoT and healthcare technologies in recent years has dramatically changed medicine for the better. We’re already experiencing major advancements in areas such as remote patient monitoring, wearable technology, and electronic information exchange, and the industry is poised to welcome a number of new technologies that will revolutionize the patient experience.
Photo of 3d Printer by Subhashish Panigrahi under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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About the Author: John Horn is the president of RacoWireless, a global M2M service provider that’s revolutionizing the development of the Internet of Things every day. The company enables the most innovative solutions and makes it easy for its partners to build solutions and stay in control of them across the globe.