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John Knopf is VP product management at NetMotion Wireless.

NetMotion

The potential of the Internet of Things in healthcare

As new and emerging technologies integrate themselves into every aspect of our lives, the potential of the Internet of Things (IoT) is huge. And it's growing.

As predicted by Gartner, 6.4 billion connected "Things" will be in use in 2016 (up 30 per cent from 2015). The healthcare sector has been a great technology adopter for years – from pace makers to hearing aids. But with new sensors, monitors and patches, measuring everything from fitness levels to heart rate and body temperature, new and emerging technology is dramatically changing how we look at, and respond to, our health.  

The real benefit of IoT in healthcare lies with hospitals creating new services, being able to operate more efficiently, developing all-new service models, and using mobile devices to benefit patients. 

Inside the four walls of the hospital, organisations are starting to fully embrace and implement technologies and systems that communicate with many of the devices already in use. However, patient care outside the hospital or in a doctor’s office is still nascent, which brings with it great opportunity.

Point-of-care data access devices are one example of this, allowing the healthcare sector access to patient history, medical records and treatment history whilst on the move. Whether this is at hospital bedsides, during visits to out-patients or on emergency calls, it could significantly cut the amount of time spent processing requests, and free up staff to attend to more pressing matters. IoT systems like electronic health records (EHR) and computerised physician order entry (CPOE) have been associated with a 31 per cent reduction in manual errors and an increase of 39 productive minutes per worker per day[1] – benefitting both staff and patients.

Freeing up beds by putting IoT devices in the hands of patients themselves can also drive efficiency. Beds occupied by non-critical patients use a considerable amount of hospitals’ limited resources – staff often have to accommodate long-term patients who require ongoing monitoring. One way to combat this is to employ wireless sensors which can be operated directly by patients themselves. These sensors can monitor heart rate, blood sugar and vital signs, relaying results back to medical staff and allowing for real-time feedback on the patient’s condition, whilst also freeing up bed space for more critically ill patients.

From our experience working with the likes of the NHS and the Dutch Ambulance service, we’ve seen that IoT devices are only as good as the connection serving them. There are two key elements to this: persistence and security. Mobile healthcare staff can’t afford to have connections slow down or drop off when they have limited time to attend to each patient, and as a result, a reliable local area network (LAN) connection is essential. Implementing a resilient virtual private network (VPN) solution can help to mitigate the effects of ‘black spots’ in large hospital buildings and in the local area whist on call, handling transitions between different networks and avoiding data loss when device connections fail. It also means that patients are relaying sensory information without a time delay. Should there be an emergency with patients using sensory devices at home, it means that doctors can respond immediately.

Secondly, it’s hugely important to ensure that sensitive patient data is being transmitted securely between devices. For example, if a system designed to allow a doctor to administer a prescribed dosage through an IV can be hacked, that could represent a significant risk to personal health and to patient confidence in the health system. Ensuring that data is properly encrypted is the first step, making it harder for cyber criminals to steal, whilst a strong multi-tiered authentication strategy at the front end of devices will ensure that only those who should access data can do so.

The potential of the IoT in healthcare sector is evident and implementing new technologies need not be a case of ‘one step forward, two steps back’. It’s not just about embracing the IoT in healthcare, but also putting a strong connectivity infrastructure and security system in place in both hospitals and out on call. With a strong network capable of maintaining connections wherever patients go and a security model able to keep sensitive data from leaking out, the face of healthcare could change considerably, and for the better.

Together we've got the public sector covered