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Internet of Things applications moving into healthcare

From improving customer experience to connecting medical devices to physicians' smartphones, the Internet of Things is steadily colonizing healthcare.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- For Philip Gerskovich, a leading thinker about Internet of Things applications for business, the most attractive benefit of linking machines to other machines, the Internet and people, is improving the customer experience.

And that's true for healthcare too, Gerskovich told SearchHealthIT in an interview after his keynote speech to the Connected Things Enterprise Forum at MIT's Media Lab. Gerskovich is senior vice president of growth platforms at Illinois-based Zebra Technologies Corp., a major player in the Internet of Things (IoT) industry. IoT's best use in healthcare may well not be connecting medical devices or freeing the IT workflow, as much as helping patients and visitors navigate hospitals and other healthcare settings, he said.

"The way the Internet of Things is going to impact healthcare is identifying people as they move around the hospital," Gerskovich said. "The overall customer experience matters."

The Connected Things event at MIT drew a standing-room-only (and sitting-on-the-floor) crowd for the main keynoters and healthy attendance at breakout sessions on three tracks: healthcare, retail and industrial IoT applications.

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The healthcare panelists, in turn, ranged from payers to hospital-based physicians with health IT specializations to executives of companies working to bring IoT into home-based healthcare.

"We're at the end of the chain trying to make things usable for the customer," said James Bleck, CEO of the Bleck Design Group, a Massachusetts-based industrial design firm, speaking during the payer session.

And while some payers are starting to use remote systems, including wellness wearables or connected body-function-monitoring devices, 95% of the data that payers sift through does not come from machines, said Ronald Razmi, M.D., a former radiologist and founder and CEO at Acupera, a data mining and population health vendor. "It's the outcomes people are paying for, not technology," Razmi said. "But technology becomes important."

As for HIPAA privacy concerns in hospital IoT configurations, Gerskovich said it would be no different than in retail settings in which identification of shoppers and their financial information is walled off by encryption.

It's the outcomes people are paying for, not technology.
Ronald Razmi, M.D.founder and CEO at Acupera

"You'd have to separately identify the patient from where all the patient information is," he said.

Also, patients or family members would have opt into an IoT tracking system that would connect to their smartphone via an encrypted identification number with no access to protected health information, Gerskovich said. His company, Zebra, plans to demonstrate portions of such a system at the "intelligent hospital" forum at the HIMSS 2015 show in Chicago in April.

To complete the healthcare IoT system, Gerskovich envisions users would be given beacons to enable hospital administrators to track and guide them through the hospital and provide such information as emergency room wait times and customized health information related to their conditions, all viewable on smart TVs.

One use case Zebra has worked on is letting IoT technology notify parents when babies in neonatal units could be viewed via tablet.

In another hospital use example, Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital has included data from electronically-tethered biomedical devices in its newly installed EHR system, said Adam Landman, M.D., CMIO for health information innovation and integration.

Meanwhile, IoT is in Boston Children's Hospital's plan of "embracing the digital innovation culture in an academic healthcare setting," said Israel Green-Hopkins, M.D., clinical advisor to the innovation acceleration program at the hospital.

A key part of that strategy is mobile secure-messaging technology for patients and including the Open Notes program -- in which patients and their families have open access to doctors' clinical notes -- as part of the hospital's patient information portal.

But the wellness device arena in IoT healthcare -- which is stirring with smartphone health data platforms from Apple Corp., Microsoft Corp., Google, Inc. and Samsung Group, among others -- still provokes controversy.

When an MIT panel moderator asked if it's helpful when patients bring their own data to their doctors, the physicians erupted into good-natured argument.

"I don't care about heart rate," declared Henry Feldman, M.D., chief information architect, division of clinical informatics at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "The only thing I need from devices is to give us information about the thing I care about."

Green-Hopkins, though, noted that information about footsteps that patients take each day -- which is tracked by most of the wellness devices -- is often important data needed to make at least general decisions about care.

And David Arney, M.D., lead engineer for the MD Plug and Play program at Massachusetts General Hospital, invoked the now familiar term "Medical Internet of Things," adding that apps that photograph and transmit skin lesions for consultative purposes, for example, are proving useful.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shaun Sutner, news and features writer or contact @SSutner on Twitter.

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