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Current and future applications of IoT in healthcare

Patients, doctors and medical facilities are benefitting from applications of IoT in healthcare. And despite security challenges, the future of IoT in the healthcare sector is bright.

The internet of things is not new, but it has been gaining more attention and traction lately. The concept entails the use of electronic devices that capture or monitor data and are connected to a private or public cloud, enabling them to automatically trigger certain events. One such use case is a garage-door opener that initiates when the owner's car is nearby or a when the owner sends a command from a mobile device.

The demand for connected devices spans multiple industries, including energy, automotive and consumer spaces. For each of them, the need for devices that can report or react to certain things provides a new level of convenience, efficiency and automation. For example, electronic devices have been used to schedule maintenance for cars, reporting any trouble areas to a mechanic so they can be addressed. Smart devices can also be used at home -- smart thermostats, for example, can collect data about the homeowners' schedules and temperature preferences and adjust accordingly.

So, what are the applications of IoT in healthcare? Just a few short years ago, practitioners were closely watching the development of IoT to see if it would be part of their future. Today, it's not only a reality, but it's making life easier for healthcare providers and patients alike.

History of IoT in healthcare

In the past decade, internet-connected devices have been introduced to patients in various forms. Whether data comes from fetal monitors, electrocardiograms, temperature monitors or blood glucose levels, tracking health information is vital for some patients, though many of these measures required follow-up interaction with a healthcare professional. Yet, the use of IoT devices has been instrumental in delivering more valuable, real-time data to doctors and lessening the need for direct patient-physician interaction.

Early applications of IoT in healthcare also included smart beds that detect when they are occupied and when a patient is attempting to get up. A smart bed can also adjust itself to ensure appropriate pressure and support are applied to the patient without the manual interaction of nurses.

Another area where smart technology quickly became an asset in healthcare is when coupled with home medication dispensers. These dispensers automatically upload data to the cloud when medication isn't taken, or any other indicators for which the care team should be alerted.

Challenges of IoT in healthcare

Internet-of-things technology implementations have raised numerous concerns around personal data privacy and security. While many of today's devices use secure methods to communicate information to the cloud, they could still be vulnerable to hackers.

Beyond personal data being stolen and misused, IoT devices can be used for harm. Simply put, IoT in healthcare can be life-threatening if not properly secured. While a fictional example, a 2012 episode of Homeland demonstrated a hacked pacemaker inducing a heart attack. Former Vice President Dick Cheney subsequently asked the wireless capabilities of his pacemaker be disabled. In 2016, Johnson & Johnson warned one of its connected insulin pumps was susceptible to attack, potentially allowing patients to deliver unauthorized insulin injections. Then, in 2017, St. Jude released patches for its vulnerable remote monitoring system of implantable pacemakers and defibrillator devices. These are just a few of the medical IoT attacks that have made headlines.

To counter these risks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has published numerous guidelines for establishing end-to-end security for connected medical devices, and regulators will likely continue to regulate connected devices used by patients. In late 2018, the FDA signed a memorandum of agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to implement a new medical device cybersecurity framework to be established by both agencies. It also issued a draft update to its premarket guidance for connected healthcare device manufacturers in 2018 to ensure end-to-end security is built in during device design and development stages.

Future of IoT in healthcare

Thanks to the maturity of the marketplace and all the hardware options available today, along with the different apps available to support them, hospitals are no longer waiting for the next great IoT product; they are in the implementation or post-implementation stages. The future of IoT in healthcare is now. In fact, Aruba Networks predicted 87% of healthcare organizations will be using IoT technology in their facilities by 2019. Aruba's report further stated that 73% of applications of IoT in healthcare will be used for remote patient monitoring and maintenance, 50% for remote operation and control, and 47% for location-based services.

While IoT was in its infancy a mere decade ago, with healthcare professionals considering it in proofs of concept and limited scope of usage, things have changed -- and quickly.

Wearable devices have matured into products that are now being worn by patients, transmitting data to physicians and thereby allowing doctors to monitor vital signs in real time, including their heart rate, glucose levels and even fall detection. Thanks to medical remote patient monitoring devices that collect key real-time data elements, patients are able to be in the comfort of their own homes while still under the watchful eye of a health professional.

Smart home medication dispensers have evolved from not only notifying healthcare professionals when medicine is not being taken as prescribed, but now these devices can store medication at proper temperatures to ensure viability.

Today's smart beds -- which were just making inroads in hospitals five years ago -- are being put into practice, collecting detailed information about patients' positions and vitals, as well as helping nurses better care for patients by, for example, helping to detect and prevent potential issues related to bedsores.

Also, as mentioned in Aruba's report, applications of IoT in healthcare help with the task of medical inventory management, helping to locate and manage assets, such as wheelchairs, thermometers or IV poles within a hospital, and allowing staff to work more effectively and efficiently.

In the future, as IoT becomes more pervasive in healthcare facilities, we'll see next-generation IoT devices bring intelligent services as part of their offering, allowing for real-time data processing at the edge -- at the device level -- which enables some actions to be executed by the device if necessary, and then send back data to the patient and their clinical teams.

This is extremely important for scenarios in which, traditionally, devices may have required connectivity to a server or a network. But with the ability to perform processing at the device level now, they don't run the risk of functioning improperly should a device lose its connection or be required to work in offline mode. For example, an insulin pump that operates independent of the internet will still analyze glucose levels at the edge -- on the patient -- and release the right amount of insulin and upload the data to the cloud when it reconnects to the internet.

With how far we've come, where will IoT go next? The increasing interaction of AI and IoT in the healthcare sector is likely to move toward more intelligent IoT devices that can perform activities autonomously. This could include medical devices that react to triggers or recognize the patient and interact with them based on their treatment plan, or even the use of autonomous drones to deliver organs or drugs to facilities in need.

Next Steps

Learn more about healthcare IoT benefits and challenges in our connected healthcare guide

Get more info on the current state of the internet of medical things

Read up on how IoT is improving the healthcare sector

Dig Deeper on Internet of Things (IoT) in Healthcare

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When it comes to the future of IoT in healthcare, which use cases are you looking forward to most?
First we have to develop a standard communications method between healthcare devices.
There are so many improvements to our healthcare system that can and should be made right now, before worrying about implementing new IoT technologies. 
It's kind of happened already. What we can expect is wireless diagnostics and pacemakers, then struggle to make them hack-proof.
You can't try to bolt on security and expect it to work. "Making it hack-proof" has to start from the ground up, with design.
Everyone want the latest technology and jump into it before analyzing the total impact it may have. It's nice to have the toys in some cases, but I would not want them to put all their eggs in one basket and then get hacked. Even worse if patients health/life is in jeopardy. I would hate to think a hacker took control of some life support equipment that I had a family member on. I know TV may over dramatize things, but how far off are they when a hacker took control of an automated medication dispenser and gave someone a lethal dose ??
I'm not easily finding an example, but it wouldn't surprise me. Certainly there've been other examples of hackers and medical devices, at least theoretically.
Hey, I think that IoT will be used in all areas of living, it will take our jobs and finally, it will take control of humanity. That's how I see it but maybe I've watched too many science-fiction movies ;).
Went back and read the article again now that some time has passed..Funny some of the points mentioned like the garage door.. Do I really want my door to open automatically when I'm coming home from work? What if I drive past my house to get a pizza for dinner? This would leave my door open for theft or entry to my house? As for being able to open it with my phone? What is that hard the door with the button on my visor? Besides in most states you should not be on your phone while driving. Now I see kitchen appliances like refrigerators with LCD screens and network connections for making out grocery lists or seeing what is inside without opening the door. Do I have an extra 5,000 dollars lying around to buy one of these marvels? No. This type of technology may be convince when it comes to healthcare because we are stretching medical staff thin today. Too many patients and not enough nurses and doctors. It could alleviate some of the tedious tasks they do today but on the other hand who is going to be held accountable if something goes wrong? I still think it will be a ways down the road before it becomes mainstream. I have spent too much time in hospitals over the last few years. I see the nurses walk in pushing a computer on a trolley with her patient orders. Then she leaves the cart unattended to get meds or see to another patient or gets called away for a minute and that leaves this open to anyone walking by to read patient info or tamper with the device. I don't think we can ever eliminate the risk of these systems 100%. It seems every time you turn around some of the systems we thought were secure can now be hacked with little effort. Most recently is the ability to clone your car's key fob from a distance then relay that info to someone else who loads the info into a hand held device, opens your car, starts it and drives away. All in less than 60 seconds. All without your knowledge. It's scary.
IoT future is bright within this sector, with almost 20Bn devices connected nowadays and a growth which is expected to be multiplied by three. We can say that bright economic future is waiting for this healthcare industry.
With IoT wearable devices: doctors, patients, physicians all of them get benefit in terms of tracking, tracing and managing reports. IoT applications can also help the patients to see their health status on smartphone app. 
Use of IoT in healthcare is a new trend and it makes the process easier to track and monitor a patient's health & track the records.