A mechanic is deep inside the dark hold of a freighter ship trying to understand why a 6,000-pound turbine engine has stopped running. Years ago, he had only his best guess to rely on, but today he has a secret weapon: IoT. He is able to call up data from thousands of sensors within the engine that are recording everything from temperature to pressure to rotational velocity. With this data, he can accurately diagnose what caused the mechanical failure. In fact, by using a digital twin of the engine, he can customize maintenance for that particular part and even create predictive models that can articulate when parts are likely to fail in the future.
Now compare that to the experience of your last doctor’s visit. Probably very different. But imagine if sensors could capture how you were feeling right now and that information could be uploaded to a secure blockchain of your medical history, giving your doctor real-time access to a digital picture of your body and how it would respond to specific treatments. While that sounds like science fiction, it may not be too far off from reality.
While we have been making so much progress in diagnosing industrial problems, medical diagnosis still suffers from a key hurdle. Even with all of today’s technology, the information doctors gather on a patient’s symptoms has been extremely limited. While modern medicine has added X-rays, MRIs, ultrasounds and other diagnostic tools to the arsenal, one major limitation has remained unchanged since the first medical diagnosis textbook — the Edwin Smith papyrus was written 4,000 years ago according to Encyclopedia Britannica, a diagnosis can only take place when the patient and doctor are together and when symptoms are present. Anyone who has taken a car to a mechanic because of an odd noise only to hear the mechanic say, “Sorry, it didn’t make the noise when I drove it” knows that this is not the best way to diagnose and solve a problem!
This millennia-old challenge to medicine is finally being addressed through the internet of things. IoT is fundamentally about creating digital data from the physical world and using that data to do new things. In medicine, what this means is that physicians can see how their patients are doing not only when they are in the doctors’ office, but when they are at home, at work, exercising or doing any of their regular daily activities. This can be incredibly important for more accurate diagnosis or more timely treatment. For example, many cancer patients need careful monitoring of their weight to ensure they stay healthy during chemotherapy. But weight can be such a lagging indicator that by the time a doctor sees a drop in weight during an office visit, it may be too late to address. If sensors worn by the patient could measure their nutrition in real time, doctors could see issues and adjust treatment plans before problems even develop. In fact, even the industrial concept of the digital twin is being used in medicine to model the performance of individual patient’s hearts to create customized treatment plans.
What IoT means for us
For all of us who rely on medicine to stay healthy, the impact of IoT may simply mean more time doing what we like and less time in the doctor’s office adjusting treatments. Take the example of patients with Type 1 diabetes. Previously, patients had to continually check their own blood sugar levels, calculate the right dose of insulin and then give themselves an injection multiple times a day. Doctors could only get insight during office visits where patients would need to bring notebooks of their blood sugar logs. Now, IoT has enabled the creation of the so-called “artificial pancreas,” a closed-loop system that senses glucose levels, calculates baseline insulin rates and then injects the right dosage. According to the diaTribe Foundation, an organization founded to improve the lives of people with diabetes, the first versions of these systems are already available in the U.S. and expected soon in Europe — IoT is already changing how we manage our health every day.
What IoT means for medical companies
For the companies working to make these new technologies a reality, the application of IoT to medicine can present vast opportunities, but also significant challenges:
Keeping data private and devices secure
First and foremost, privacy and security are critical to the success of any IoT system. However, when you add sensitive personal health information to the mix, the importance is significantly magnified. Data must be managed so that it is always accessible to the patient and their doctors, but not to others — perhaps even system managers. At the same time, the entire system from device to server must be protected from external breaches. In most cybersecurity settings this means safeguarding the data from loss or theft, but the digital-physical link in IoT introduces the new challenge of protecting the physical device as well. A ransomware attack against a medical device could leave victims literally with a choice between paying or dying.
But these challenges are not insurmountable. New technologies such as blockchain can offer the safe and secure storage of certain types of data, allowing authorized users to share information without fear of compromise or manipulation of sensitive data. Such technologies to secure data sharing are critical not only to the proper functioning of each medical device, but also to solving the next major challenge: working with many different stakeholders.
Working with the right stakeholders
Healthcare is one of the largest industries in the world, so it should come as no surprise that it is an industry with a veritable forest of different stakeholders. From hospitals to doctors to insurers to medical device companies, there can be a number of different players involved in even the simplest transaction — and that is not even considering the patients themselves!
As a result, no single company can do everything itself. Rather, the success of any new medical technology, such as IoT, relies on the ability of a company to form an ecosystem of other reliable stakeholders all working together towards the success of the technology. This means being able to articulate to each stakeholder what is in it for them. How will this technology lessen the workload on doctors? How will it reduce costs for insurers? Will it lessen the reimbursement rates for hospitals? Answering all of these questions is critical to IoT adoption and allowing that technology to help improve patients’ lives.
Regulation and approval process
The final hurdle for many IoT technologies in healthcare is the regulatory approval process. IoT’s ability to blur the lines between the physical and digital worlds has added a new layer of complexity to these regulations, adding uncertainty as to what is and what is not a “medical device” subject to regulations. As a result, companies should work closely with regulators at each stage of IoT system development to ensure that it is classified correctly and that there are no costly last-minute surprises.
The application of IoT to medicine is not just one more technology in the doctor’s toolkit. Rather, it enables a breakthrough in a 4,000-year-old barrier to better medical care, and in doing so, IoT in medicine is about improving lives and keeping all of us healthier. It is IoT for me.
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