IoT — or the Internet of Things — is emerging as a powerful tool for healthcare purposes. IoT healthcare solutions have the potential to revolutionise the way the modern healthcare system works, tracking data from disparate sources and compiling them into centralised form. Automation, alerts and more are all theoretically possible, helping result in overall better patient outcomes. But how does IoT in healthcare make all of this possible?

The future for healthcare and IoT

IoT has been in place for consumer purposes since the 1980s, but it’s only in more recent years that its full potential for healthcare has started to emerge. So let’s take a look at some of the most exciting developments in the modern IoT landscape and how they might change the playing field when it comes to caring for patients. 

Wearable heart rhythm monitors 

Conditions such as cardiac arrhythmia can be quite difficult to diagnose in some patients because the condition is often intermittent in nature. In order to accurately diagnose it, doctors need to observe or record the irregular heartbeat. As 24-7 observation is an impractical solution in most cases, what is needed is a way of recording the heartbeat for an extended period until an episode of cardiac arrhythmia occurs. Wearable heart rhythm monitors that are also healthcare IoT devices are one possible answer to the problem and have already been used by patients and doctors.

Smartphone-connected devices 

Abbott’s Confirm Rx™ ICM device was the world’s first smartphone-compatible continuous heart monitor. It was designed to monitor and store heart rhythm data 24 hours a day and upload the data it had collected at the end of every day. Now, it has been updated with a variety of new features. For example, in addition to the nightly data transfers, it also gives patients the ability to send an instant alert if they start to experience a cardiac arrhythmia episode. This is sent straight to their healthcare provider.

Mood-aware IoT medical devices 

One possible future application of IoT in healthcare is the development of mood-aware devices that can be worn by patients suffering from depression or anxiety. Several research programs have already investigated how physiological sensors could capture and analyse a range of human emotions and, although this field is still in the early stages of development, studies have determined a significant demand for mood-aware IoT devices. Applications for these devices are not just limited to the healthcare industry: demand from companies in the entertainment, law enforcement and security industries is also anticipated to be high.

Biosensors that are designed to collect and analyse data from the heart, skin and brain and those that monitor muscle activity are at the centre of many research programs in this field. Capturing and analysing human emotions is not an exact science at this moment in time, and it may never be possible to achieve the task with complete accuracy. However, it seems likely that these health IoT devices may still yield interesting data and potentially help improve mental health care into the future. 

Smart inhalers 

Among the IoT healthcare devices that have already been tested are smart inhalers, which can store information on the frequency of attacks and share it with medical professionals. Every time these inhalers are used, a sensor inside them transmits data to healthcare providers, including the time, location and nature of the asthma event.

The information collected by smart inhalers is useful for doctors, who can use it to monitor and evaluate the condition of patients and the patients themselves. With access to records of all asthma events experienced over a period of time, patients can look for common factors that may have triggered the events. If poor air quality in certain environments or exposure to mould, tobacco smoke or pet dander is linked to the onset of symptoms, asthma sufferers can do their best to avoid the environments in which they were exposed to these pollutants and irritants in the future. Finally, smart inhalers can also alert users when they go out and forget to take their devices with them, helping to prevent situations in which they are unable to medicate themselves during an asthma attack.

Connected contact lenses 

Scientists in the USA, China and the UK have developed contact lenses that can analyse the chemical composition of tear fluid from wearers’ eyes and predict the possibility of future health complications including stroke and heart disease. They can also monitor blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, helping physicians determine how effectively the condition is being managed. 

Smart contact lenses are by no means a new invention. Microsoft and Google announced their own research programs in this field in 2012 and 2014 respectively. In addition to Internet of Things healthcare applications, these two technology companies examined other use cases, such as taking pictures with smart contact lenses. However, while Google used custom-made lenses, the sensors developed by scientists in the UK, USA and China can be attached to commercially-produced soft lenses, making them a more practical proposition for future IoT healthcare applications.

Sensors to monitor Parkinson’s disease symptoms

Adjusting medication for Parkinson’s sufferers can be difficult without access to accurate information on the severity of recent symptoms. For this reason, a feasibility study was conducted, looking at the possibility of using wearable sensors to collect data from patients in the future. At the moment, doctors use assessments in a clinical setting to chart the severity of symptoms. The subjective nature of these assessments — together with the possible discrepancies between symptoms displayed in a clinical setting and the home — mean that the accuracy of the results are not always assured. It is hoped that IoT for healthcare technology can facilitate more accurate assessments by collecting data from devices that are worn by patients 24 hours a day.

The feasibility study concluded that data collected from wearable sensors could reliably highlight OFF moments as reported by the patients, which would seem to indicate a positive future for healthcare Internet of Things technology in the field of Parkinson’s treatment. The sensors that were used contained accelerometers and gyroscopes, enabling them to detect movement data in the subjects that participated in the study.

Ingestible sensors 

Sensors designed to detect various gastrointestinal conditions and help locate the source of internal bleeding in the stomach are being developed by various researchers at the moment. Simple ingestible sensors (sensors that are designed to be swallowed) have already been manufactured but are more limited in their capabilities than those currently in development. They are currently used to monitor the pH level of stomach acid, along with body temperature and internal pressure. They can also be used to detect whether patients have taken any medication which they have been prescribed — although this use case obviously requires the consent of the patients in question.

Internet of Things health researchers involved in the continuing development of ingestible sensors have used bacteria to detect gastrointestinal bleeding. The technology has successfully been tested on animal subjects already, and the next step is to make the ingestible devices smaller before conducting tests on human subjects. Technological developments that provide a locomotion method for the sensors once they have been swallowed (i.e. a way to guide them through the gastrointestinal tract) could help to make the next generation of ingestible sensors even more useful to healthcare professionals.

IoT tags on critical medical apparatus 

Large hospitals with an extensive stock of medical equipment are using real-time locating systems (RTLS) to keep track of the whereabouts of individual items. IoT tags attached to each piece of equipment ensure that everything can be quickly located and retrieved when it is needed. Wake Forest Baptist Health — a healthcare organisation in the USA reported that they were able to save $3.5 million after adopting an RTLS in their facilities, by not having to replace medical equipment because it couldn’t be found when it was needed.

In addition to providing real-time location information that allows staff to narrow their search to a specific room, medical bay or nursing station, the RFID tags that are used in these systems can also transmit additional useful information. This can include details such as whether the piece of equipment in question is currently switched on and whether it has been sanitised after its last use. The tags in IoT hospital equipment tracking systems can also be programmed to let staff know if a piece of equipment is out for repair, thereby avoiding fruitless searches for items that are unavailable.

IoT sensors connected to insurers’ systems 

In addition to the many applications of IoT for hospitals, it is believed that the same technology could be worn on a voluntary basis by individuals who apply for health insurance, enabling underwriters to offer more personalised policies. By basing risk assessments on actual data concerning the behaviour of policyholders, insurers will be able to offer reduced premiums to individuals who follow healthier lifestyles and adjust premiums upwards for customers who do not.

Theoretically, it will be possible to base premiums on more sophisticated factors rather than solely looking at age or pre-existing medical conditions. Based on the data they collect, lower premiums could be offered to people who do not indulge in activities that may damage their health. Individuals who participate in activities to improve their health could be rewarded with even lower premiums, providing a greater incentive to hit the gym.

IoT devices for clinical trials 

The possibility of remote clinical trials that don’t require participants to stay in a medical facility for observation has been considered before. However, the recent pandemic has perhaps added a greater sense of urgency to research in this field. Healthcare IoT devices and systems could streamline clinical trials by enabling medical staff to monitor participants’ vital signs remotely and give each participant the ability to submit self-assessments via a connected device regularly. It’s possible that devices could also be configured to send alerts when adverse reactions were detected, helping to ensure that individuals received prompt medical attention when needed.

As you can see, the future for healthcare is incredibly exciting when it comes to the many and varied uses there are for IoT devices.

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