Realising the future of modern healthcare

The internet of things is transforming how we all deliver and receive medical services

Sally Frank
By Sally Frank on 28 August 2020
Realising the future of modern healthcare
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The healthcare and life sciences industries are very complicated due to the plethora of regulations, expansiveness of the sub-verticals and most of all, because they deal with the health and wellbeing of every person on the planet. Technology is often viewed as key to managing – dare I say – even simplifying things. If improving patient outcomes is the ultimate goal of every technological advancement from penicillin to MRI scans, then the internet of things (IoT) is no different. However, how IoT is used varies widely by industry segment. This article aims to highlight some of the most common uses of IoT in health and life sciences.

According to a 2019 IoT Signals Report from Microsoft, “87 per cent of IoT decision makers in manufacturing have adopted IoT and the vast majority say IoT is critical to the success of their company…”  IoT basically grew up in the manufacturing industry and was built on the foundation set by supervisory control and data acquisition systems and manufacturing execution systems. Healthcare manufacturing is no different. Tracking raw materials, optimising the shop floor, producing consistent, high-quality products, and predicting manufacturing equipment downtime are also critical for healthcare manufacturers, whether they are producing medical devices, pharmaceuticals, or consumer health products. Furthermore, IoT can support good practice compliance, ensuring that manufacturing processes are in accordance with rigorous standards by automating manual processes, and providing alerts when shop floor equipment is about to deviate from ideal operating parameters. 

In the pharmaceutical industry, IoT is being used more frequently to track and trace raw materials and the pharmaceuticals themselves. This enables drugs to enter the supply chain and be monitored from the manufacturing plant, through the supply chain, to their final point of distribution, such as a pharmacy.  This ensures tamper- and counterfeit-free drug delivery to patients. As medications become more expensive and personalised, it’s also essential to keep certain drugs, like immunotherapies and insulin, at optimum temperatures to maintain their efficacy. Using IoT to manage a drug’s location and the ambient temperature en route ensures that drugs do not lose their potency or become harmful while in transit.  The Drug Supply Chain Security Act, passed in the USA in 2013, establishes the framework for ensuring that the drug supply is safe and IoT helps companies comply with this regulation.

IoT is also being used in a variety of ways in the medical device segment. In addition to connected manufacturing operations outlined above, IoT can be used to monitor the health of the medical device and the health of the patient. With infusion pumps, for example, during the process of delivering drugs to a patient, we want to know how well the pump is performing and when it may be on the verge of operating outside ideal parameters. We also want to be alerted when it needs maintenance and carry out over-the-air software and firmware updates. IoT technology provides this command and control of devices in the healthcare setting. Similarly, while the patient is connected to the infusion pump, we may be using other connected devices to monitor key vitals for the patient, including heart rate, respiratory rate and pulse. In doing so, we can understand how the patient is reacting to the treatment as soon as possible, allowing interventions to be made before the patient’s health deteriorates.

In addition to monitoring people while they are connected to a medical device in a care setting, IoT technology is also helping to monitor patients at home to help them manage a chronic illness, recover from surgery, or maintain or improve their level of wellness. IoT can connect consumer-grade (such as smartwatches) and medical-grade devices (such as cardiac monitors) to enable physicians and other medical staff to interact directly with patients and consumers while they go about their regular lives. Not only does this help eliminate ‘white coat syndrome’ but it also enables medical professionals to care for more patients in an era when the number of elderly citizens is rising, and practitioners are decreasing. 

Remote patient monitoring is also a great way to improve the efficacy of clinical trials while subjects remain comfortable in their homes. Most clinical trials are fraught with issues, including adherence to protocol, participants losing interest, or dropping out altogether due to logistical challenges. However, with at-home monitoring, study participants can reduce their in-office visits, take their readings at home, share them with the study investigators, and receive reminders that help them stay on track. This improves the adherence to the protocols, reduces the drop-out rate of patients, reduces the costs of the trial and improves its reliability.

A few months ago, if you had asked me the most common uses of IoT in health and life sciences, I would have said manufacturing and supply chain, but that was before Covid-19. While a few months ago patient monitoring was only being piloted and tested, it is now coming to the forefront. Not only do we need to scale our providers more than ever before, but patients need to stay home to reduce the risk of infecting others. Furthermore, the rolling back of the USA’s Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act restrictions to allow wide-ranging telehealth visits during the early stages of the pandemic, and the increase of remote patient monitoring reimbursement codes from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in the US means that remote patient monitoring is becoming a necessity and part of the care continuum.  

Sally Frank is a Healthcare IoT Advisor for health and life sciences at Microsoft

This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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