IoT Trends 2016 (IV): Connected health to build a brighter future

Published by Joan Cornet IoT General

IoT Trends 2016 (IV). We have asked experts from leading companies in different areas of the IoT to give us their view on a certain aspect of the Internet of Things within their field of expertise. Thus, in this series you will be able to read relevant content about how the IoT is revolutionising different aspects of our everyday life such as Connectivity, Security, Transport, Health, Utilities or Innovation among others.

When we talk about Healthcare in the IoT, we are talking about the best way to store and access health data that a patient generates. This information can be digitized and browsed in the same way we do with other key aspects of our lives: through our smartphones and mobile devices.

This is a true paradigm shift for the Healthcare industry, which have led experts to forecast reaching the four billion connected patient milestone by 2020. Every person is expected to have up to seven or eight health or wellness tracking devices by then.

Stay healthy, stay connected

mHealth is expected to become a core component of the Internet of Things. The reason is simple to understand: we all want to be healthy. The desire to remain healthy is a powerful driving force to overcome resistance to change. People are more willing to commit to new ways of accessing healthcare services than in other fields of technology because of the willingness we all have for feeling well. This shift requires some important elements to ensure a successful transition such as data collection means (wearable gadgets and the backend to store the collected information) but the essential link is still the smartphone, which will work as a runway linking patient health data to the Internet.

This increase in connected healthcare adoption is related, for obvious reasons, to the drop in smartphone prices, giving virtually everyone access not only to next-generation phones, but also to sensors and gadgets that collect data, as well as storage space to allocate and process the collected information for each patient.

Reasons for the growth of eHealth

Connected Health is swiftly advancing in order to adapt solutions to the existing requirements of patients:

  1. Obtain more insight of every patient’s needs, in order to know more accurately what services and treatments they require
  2. Improve decision-making regarding patients. More precise diagnoses can be given with shared clinical records made available to medical professionals through the Internet
  3. Doctor-Patient communication is currently fairly complicated. My doctor cannot easily contact me nor can I, if there is not a face to face appointment involved. This process is far from being streamlined: I request an appointment, I wait for the day and time to arrive, I go to the health centre and I ultimately have the appointment. Meanwhile there is no contact nor interaction between the patient and the doctor. Thanks to eHealth and the IoT there are ways of solving this
  4. Connected health tools help patients follow their prescribed treatment, a vital improvement, as up to 60% of patients fail to comply with their medication or follow their treatments adequately
  5. Cost reduction and optimization of slow and highly bureaucratised processes

When we analyse regional market maturity (in broad terms, as there are substantial differences even within the same country) we can differentiate two distinct groups: developed countries (OECD and Western countries basically) and developing countries.

There is a well-established medical infrastructure in developed countries with a network of health centres. Many have managed to digitize certain services like health cards, clinical records, prescriptions, etc.  Developed countries have moved forward at a steadier pace. The challenge for these countries lies more on the side of technology, enabling connectivity that allow patients to have access to the medical data and be in close contact with doctors and nurses whenever they need them.

Developing countries struggle to cover their needs in terms of health centres and qualified medical professionals. However, medical professionals can be connected directly to their patients, regardless of this lack of sufficient means, thanks to mobile telephones. These telephones mitigate basic services traditionally carried out face to face at health centres – expectant mothers keep in contact with their doctors in some regions in Africa through text messages, via their mobile phone.

In the case of disease outbreaks, like the Ebola virus that triggered an epidemic in vast regions of Africa, mobile phones were used to follow up on the speed of contagion and the direction in which the virus was spreading. This helped anticipate its arrival to uninfected areas and apply measures to block and contain the disease. Thousands of medical professionals (doctors and nurses) received training via their phones, an unprecedented strategy to counterattack epidemics that has proven so useful it can be reused for spreading other (less obvious) information regarding healthcare.

Cutting edge services can be provided using technology. Mobile World Capital has several pilot projects to put these ideas in practice, for example there is a pilot project in Barcelona to provide assistance to patients with severe mobility difficulties (paraplegia and tetraplegia). These patients are provided with tablets that establish encrypted connections (safekeeping patient data is crucial in healthcare) to contact their primary healthcare centre and avoid having to go there for recurrent issues such as medication changes. The tablet can download prescriptions that can be taken directly to the Chemist’s. In Switzerland this processed is streamlined and medicines are delivered to the patient’s doorstep through a courier service.

Digitization of health data is a fabulous way of getting doctors to work together sharing data to fight against high cholesterol, high blood pressure or other common ailments in patients. Additionally if a patient has to go through several visits to different doctors, these receive a complete snapshot of the patient’s treatments, medications and medical tests overcoming the unfortunate common mistake of prescribing incompatible drugs or running the same medical test more than once on a patient. 

Big Data in Healthcare

How do we manage the huge amount of data we collect for each patient? A key aspect we want to remark again is that health is ultimately data. Patient Generated Health Data (PGHD) for patients of similar ages is basically equivalent, regardless of the location. People suffer similar ailments in Hong-Kong, Toronto, or any other part of the world. A diabetes patient, for instance, – or any other chronical patient for the matter – is more complex to treat than the rest of patients. But there are normally more patients like him around the world. Their nationality and location is, in general, irrelevant. We must learn how to best compile and combine aggregated information from thousands of patients in different locations with similar problems and understand global health patterns and reactions to different treatments and drugs. This combined analysis was previously impossible to carry out as patients are dealt with one by one, once a treatment or medicine has proven to be effective.

Challenges for Healthcare

There are four challenges in Healthcare that we must address:

  1. Data privacy. The ultimate goal is to preserve the anonymity of clinical records beyond medical premises.
  2. Certify mobile digital solutions for medical purposes. This certification process requires devices, similar to current wearables, to undergo accuracy and testing processes that ensure medical device precision.
  3. Interoperability. Healthcare data has to be swiftly transferrable from one healthcare data manager to another, regardless of country, or whether the previous holder or the recipient are private or a public institutions.
  4. Cost. Who pays for data storage and associated services that add considerable costs to standard healthcare? This issue has probably received the least amount of attention though the trend leads us to believe that, in the future, health services will charge for the use of devices to track vitals and any associated services in a single fee.

Current or future healthcare organizations will prioritize cooperative initiatives to help their patients stay healthy and help them to comply with their medication and treatments as prevention is always less costly than clinical treatments.

To sum up, IoT/mHealth is bound to empower citizens, drastically improve patient-doctor communication, generate Big Data that benefits patients – this is, that helps diagnose more accurately and prescribe effectively – and help ensure the sustainability of the public and private health sectors.

Joan Cornet
Director of mHealth. Mobile World Capital