The Internet of Things: New Connections to Healthcare Opportunity

Andy Gaudette, SVP, HMS [NASDAQ:HMSY]
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Andy Gaudette, SVP, HMS [NASDAQ:HMSY]

The Internet of Things has been around for almost 10 years. When I first heard the term, I imagined devices that would send information back to a central place for information purposes. It seemed like one-way communication over the internet versus hardwired devices. Cool, but not earth shattering.

My perception has changed recently as I learn more both as a consumer and as a technology professional. A quick stroll through a home improvement store begins to tell the tale: smart units can control the heating and cooling in my home using my smart phone, along with security devices and electrical outlets. A smart oven turned on remotely from my phone has dinner ready when I get there. That same oven can ramp up my home air-conditioning automatically if it heats up the house as it cooks.

I spent many years as a process engineer in manufacturing, food processing, agriculture, and transportation. Those disciplines simply could not have reached the levels of safety and quality that exist today if not for smart devices communicating with each other and taking action without human intervention. For example, refrigerated containers on ocean voyages are now monitored and adjusted as they travel, keeping meat and produce safe. Irrigation and nutrients are remotely controlled on distant farm fields. The list goes on.

At this year’s Gartner Tech Growth and Innovation conference, the primary message was “Make it Digital, Make it Programmable, Make it Smart.”

Digital and programmable are self-explanatory. Digital is, in fact, what those devices are and how they connect. Programmable brings in the element of remote, device-to-device control, tracking and actionable responses. I would add the use of blockchain to that description as security and recording concerns across myriad devices become increasingly complex and vital.

Smart takes on several meanings. IoT systems can be responsible for performing actions, not just sensing things. They do that by monitoring and adjusting what they are connected to, without having to send data back to a server. In today’s world, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) intersect with IoT, creating devices capable of “learning” their environments, roles and responsibilities, and adjusting algorithms and responses appropriately.

 At this year’s Gartner Tech Growth and Innovation conference, the primary message was “Make it Digital, Make it Programmable, Make it Smart  

According to research giant Gartner, by 2018, six billion IoT devices worldwide will require support. Gartner also forecasts 47 percent of those devices will have intelligence to ask for that support. Customer service will handle some of it, but the rest will require automation. By 2021, Gartner continues, one million IoT devices will be purchased around the world every hour of every day.

I view the IoT market in two use categories: internal and external. Internal use refers to an enterprise implementing an IoT strategy to make itself more automated and efficient. The refrigerated container example mentioned earlier is an example of that. An external IoT implementation involves a B2B or B2C relationship among two or more entities to the mutual benefit of all.

Healthcare Applications

Healthcare has the potential to be a very good example of an external application of IoT. In fact, as recently as 2015, Forbes Magazine cited a subscription report from MarketResearch.com that put the market potential for healthcare IoT at $117 billion by 2020.

However, healthcare lags behind other industries in interoperability and use. The industry grapples with stringent HIPAA security concerns. It comprises multiple, often large and complex players to include providers, consumers and vendors. Many vendors still have a proprietary approach to the market, which has limited the ability to interface and share data. Lastly, the patient or consumer is involved. Some devices in healthcare systems have to rely on the consumer to stand on a scale, use a blood pressure cuff, open a pill dispenser, strap on a wearable device, etc. Healthcare benefits play a big part in IoT adoption rates. When healthcare insurers begin to cover the costs of remote devices, the use of those devices will skyrocket.

The healthcare industry has three primary entities involved: providers (hospitals and doctors), payers (health plans and managed care organizations), and members (patients or consumers). There is a promising future for IoT in each of these areas, and they do intersect.

Providers: Some hospitals have begun implementing “smart beds” that can detect when they are occupied and when a patient is attempting to get up. It can also adjust itself to ensure appropriate pressure and support is applied to the patient without the manual interaction of nurses. Hospital beds and medical devices are tracked throughout “wired” hospitals, date and time-stamping the movement of patients, assets and supplies.

Doctor providers are handicapped today because of their dissatisfaction with their electronic health record systems, much to do with the lack of interoperability and the time required to manually enter data. But that is changing. Once interoperability is mainstream and data flow is automated, doctors will be connected to the entire digital healthcare ecosystem and play an important part.

Payers: Payers have become incredibly efficient at coordinating care for consumers with what are known as case managers or care coordinators. Case managers are typically registered nurses who develop a plan of care for the consumer. Case managers would love to receive biometric data such as blood pressure, heart rate, sudden weight gain and glucose levels from external devices. For example, if a consumer with congestive heart failure gains two to three pounds a few days in a row, the system could alert the case manager, and the consumer will likely be hospitalized.

Members: Specialized sensors can be equipped within living spaces to monitor the health and general well-being of senior citizens. Smart devices will adjust home environments as needed. The use of wearables will likely be adopted by the senior population, thereby providing three-way communication and alerts among the consumer, care coordinator and doctors. Voice recognition accuracy will improve dramatically over the next two years, which will allow those three-way communications to be verbal over devices in addition to digital, discrete data transmission. Lastly, visions systems will advance to read emotions and transmit those consumer emotions to care coordinators and providers.

IoT is gaining traction in all industries. Whether you are involved in healthcare or smart cities, manufacturing, agriculture, supply chain, or consumer products, IoT is sure to impact your world. In fact, it will become an important and inescapable technological foundation.

It behooves all CIOs, especially those working in healthcare, to learn more and implement IoT pilot projects. Listen to vendors approaching you about connected devices. Attend webinars and conferences. Experiment. Embrace it. Set yourself apart by staying ahead. More importantly, let IoT help you create quality, efficient and safe products and processes to provide better service.

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