By now, you’ve likely heard about the Internet of Things (or IoT), a technical term for any network of sensors and small computing devices that exchange and share information to improve the operations of real-world systems.
Global shipping companies attach smart IoT tags to monitor and transmit the state of each of their pallets, trucks, ships, and containers, right down to their exact location, temperature, humidity, and exposure to light. Interstate gas pipelines deploy hundreds of sensors that feed a predictive maintenance regime. Across industries, IoT networks are saving billions of dollars in direct costs (inventory, labor, security) and indirect efficiencies through prevented maintenance and greener operations.
Healthcare is no exception. According to Fortune Business Insights, the industry ranks fifth in global IoT spending. Medical IoT is forecast to grow from $41 billion in 2020 to $188 billion by 2028. The growth is for a good reason: Connected medical devices, combined with the right software, can improve conditions and delivery, optimize care and devices, and save lives.
As the healthcare industry grows into its IoT opportunity, practitioners must do what they do best: triage for the best solutions while ensuring system safety and reliability. More devices mean a higher vulnerability to cyberattacks. Before spending a dollar on IoT, you must triple-check any vendor’s security bona fides. And don’t forget a plan to manage the daily torrent of data these networks produce.
Some IoT solutions are eye-catching, such as digital pills with sensors that alert a health network when they encounter the patient’s stomach chemistry. Also promising are apps that use the Apple Watch to track the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms. But three IoT use cases are, for me, even more interesting as they’re available now, road-tested, and life-improving for millions of people every day.
Connected AEDs to avoid loss of life
Almost 18 million people die annually from cardiovascular diseases, with 40-50% of those deaths due to sudden cardiac arrest. Without immediate treatment, survival rates are extremely low, less than 1% worldwide.
Automated external defibrillators (AEDs) have significantly prevented life in sudden cardiac arrest events. You’ve probably seen them wall-mounted in airports and offices in case of emergency. These semi-portable devices can monitor and analyze a patient’s heart rhythm, guide a bystander through chest compressions and, as a last resort, come with shock paddles to help restore the patient’s heartbeat.
While hospitals are well-equipped to treat incidents, some 350,000 cardiac arrests every year take place out of the hospital. The vast majority of them are fatal. Consumers have, up until recently, been reluctant to buy and keep an AED in the house or the car. They were too expensive and not that portable, but AEDs are dropping in price, and having one on hand can make a huge difference. Research has shown that proximity to AEDs can boost the survival rate to 100% when they can deliver shocks within 2.2 minutes.
That is if the AEDs are charged and checked regularly, and that is where IoT comes in. Connected AEDs can continuously assess battery and paddle health and transmit a patient’s data to first responders and medical professionals for remote monitoring in real time. The FDA is approving more of these portable AEDs. I predict that every home, office, and public setting will eventually have a connected model to ensure its maintenance and avoid tragedy.
Improving glucose monitoring for better diabetes management
Traditionally, diabetic patients have used fingertip pricks to test their blood glucose levels. This method has two main drawbacks: It does not continuously monitor levels, and the inconvenience of these tests leads some patients to check less frequently than they should. Without access to real-time data, the 37 million American diabetics are more vulnerable to extreme swings in glucose levels that can cause disorientation, unconsciousness, or even death.
The solution is continuous glucose monitoring, which combines a wearable sensor and smartphone app to track blood glucose levels 24/7. CGM systems can issue predictive alerts before glucose spikes or dips. Longer-term, I see diabetes patients combining continuous monitoring with IoT-connected insulin-delivery devices that learn from the data how much insulin to administer and at what time.
Monitoring critical sleep disorder information without disruption
Approximately 25 million adults in the U.S. suffer from sleep apnea, a potentially serious disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts throughout the night. IoT has the potential to transform apnea treatment by allowing doctors to access patient information in real time and develop more accurate treatment programs.
Millions of Americans already wear CPAP devices at night to push air into their lungs at just enough pressure to prevent the collapse of your airway. The emergence of Internet-connected CPAP devices will allow patients to upload sleep data daily to a cloud-based management system, providing secure, real-time analysis of treatment progress. Physicians and patients will be able to treat sleep disorders as they occur and take action when necessary.
The benefits of IoT connectivity in healthcare are clear: better outcomes, more efficient care delivery, and happier patients and care professionals. As long as the industry stays on top of the growth pains around cyber hacks and data management (both of which are manageable concerns), I see a long future ahead for this technology.
Photo credit: Andrey Suslov, Getty