Implications of the Internet of Things for the health sector

| February 22, 2016

It’s predicted that by 2020, 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet. Michael Gill explains what this means for our health system and health care delivery.

The concepts behind the phrase “Internet of Things” (IoT) has been around for ten years among information and communication (ICT) professionals. Put very simply it is about assigning any tool, device, machine or building – things – a unique electronic identifier so that these can be connected to electronic networks such as the Internet or telephone system.

Being able to monitor air conditioning performance in a building from another location or from your smartphone is an example of how IoT may work. IoT has the potential to radically change health system productivity. All smartphones and tablets, for example, have an Internet Protocol (IP) address enabling doctors and nurses to exchange administrative, health and patient information. Examples from other sectors include smart grid for optimising energy consumption at home and the emergence of intelligent vehicles. Cisco Systems Inc. predicts that by 2020, 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet, and this will generate huge volumes of data.

The more data that is created, the more knowledge people can derive. IoT dramatically increases the amount of data available for people to process. Data analytics and Big Data are currently emerging as two of the main ways to handle such huge volumes. So focusing on the health system and health care delivery, the implications of IoT include the following:

  • Small wearable device worn by all nursing home residents across the country to monitor heart rate and falls, sending alerts to local nurses automatically via the Internet;
  • Attaching Internet enabled location sensors to IV pumps and burns mattresses can reduce losses, nurse search time and patient stress;
  • Within a large hospital, equipping all clinicians with smart tablets enable the exchange of patient information, medical images, clinician location details and general staff messaging. Each device has a unique IP address and is connected to the hospitals intranet. Queensland Health, Cleveland Health and many private hospitals have demonstrated productivity increases based on IoT;
  • To reduce emergency room congestion and patient waiting times smart connected technologies have the potential to re-route patients to more appropriate services (such as the community nurse service) and to optimise staff resources based on historic patterns and current observations; and
  • Whether data comes from fetal monitors, electrocardiograms, temperature monitors or blood glucose levels, tracking information is vital for some patients. Many of these measures require follow-up interaction with a healthcare professional. This creates an opening for smarter devices to deliver more valuable data, lessening the need for direct patient-physician interaction.

As data volumes increase issues associated with security, patient privacy and government regulation come to the fore. It is inevitable that IoT will be adopted across all industries including health in much the same way as the telephone replaced message runners and letters – requiring both organisational and technological change.

Personally, I suspect that the most significant health care deployment focus areas for IoT in the near term will be for nurse equipment and work flow management. Nurses make up the largest segment of the health workforce. The other focus area is likely to be in the management of medications across an entire hospital. Allowing medications to be tracked, time dated and linked to particular patients will optimise the current system considerably.