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Medical professionals have long dreamed of connecting data from a variety of sources to create a "smart" model of healthcare. With IoT as the backbone, devices and systems would seamlessly merge to offer a holistic, real-time view of patient well-being and the healthcare provider's response.
For a variety of reasons, that kind of healthcare has so far been only a dream. But with the COVID-19 pandemic drastically realigning priorities, many on the technology side of healthcare believe this is an ideal moment for hospitals and medical practices to make full use of IoT.
They won't have to start from scratch. Many healthcare systems already use a vast number of IoT sensors and devices largely working in isolation. The sensors and devices simply need to be connected.
"They have a lot of great stuff, but none of it is talking to each other," said Gregg Pessin, senior analyst at market research firm Gartner. "The next step for the industry is an IoT platform strategy, combining all of that data that's in all those silos. If you can combine all of that data, there is a lot of great value for healthcare."
IoT has the potential to give doctors and nurses access to a wide array of data that influences patient health. IoT is already being used by medical personnel and patients on a long list of devices, including ventilators, incubators, smart stethoscopes, medical imaging and electrocardiograms. In patient rooms, IoT creates "smart beds" that monitor heart rate, respiration and even if patients begin to fall.
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Outside of the hospital, IoT lets doctors and nurses further monitor patients with sensors in pacemakers, neurostimulators and smart watches. When all connected, these devices allow medical personnel to move beyond patients' subjective accounts of wellness and instead make informed decisions based on objective data-driven measurements.
Not a niche product: Healthcare IoT is already helping hospitals
With IoT technology already in place in many hospitals and doctor's offices, healthcare providers must now connect those many devices on a platform to create more comprehensive data streams. Doing so will let them be more responsive to in-the-moment information, Pessin and other technology experts say.
For instance, a hospital nurse today can only intuitively draw a connection between the discomfort patients feel with a sudden rise in room temperature, Pessin said. Furthermore, the nurse would have to contact maintenance to adjust the thermostat. Much as consumer-facing applications like Nest give a homeowner a view and control over thermostats, security alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, a healthcare IoT platform would give medical staff centralized monitoring and management of patient vitals and hospital room conditions, he said.
A study by Pessin and Gartner colleague Pooja Singh published in January found healthcare budgeting for IoT was on par with other industries adopting the technology. In healthcare, IoT budgeting grew 10% in 2018, another 10% in 2019 and was expected to grow 13% in 2020. About 86% of healthcare provider organizations reported having an IoT solution architecture in place for most lines of business. Gartner conducted the study before the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, which could curb technology initiatives as medical organizations grapple with decreased revenue because of a temporary halt in profitable elective procedures.
But several analysts and consultants believe many healthcare systems will nonetheless move ahead with IoT plans, even at a small scale, because the response to COVID-19 has illustrated that medical professionals need access to data from all available sources.
"Before COVID-19, [healthcare IoT] was considered by some to be niche," said Bill Stith, a senior vice president and global head of the health business unit at Wipro, an IT consultant headquartered in Bengaluru, India. "But healthcare organizations are realizing they have to do this now, and it has to be affordable. The patients will demand it."
As the pandemic continues and patients are expected to maintain social distancing, Stith said, telemedicine will be a critical tool for doctors. With patients increasingly using wearable devices to monitor their health, hospital systems will need to coalesce the data generated to build comprehensive medical profiles.
However, IoT can improve more than clinical care. According to Jill Klein, senior leader of IoT and healthcare for San Antonio IT services provider Sirius Computing Solutions, IoT also streamlines healthcare operations and creates revenue opportunities. For example, some hospitals have deployed IoT technology to monitor the driving habits of employees to better manage their fleet of vehicles and avoid unnecessary maintenance costs. Klein said hospital departments that have yet to incorporate IoT will see the successes in those areas of the business and ask, "Hey, how can I do that?"
According to the Gartner study, the list of nonclinical IoT devices that can improve healthcare operations includes real-time location services that track wheelchairs, infusion pumps and medication carts; video surveillance and door entry systems for security; HVAC, lighting, water quality and humidity monitoring to control interior environments; and power distribution, energy management and elevator sensors to manage building functions.
Channel partners help overcome healthcare IoT hurdles
Healthcare providers are looking for every edge to financially thrive, and so want to turn almost every area of business into a "smart space" to learn more about their assets, Klein said. Sirius works with hospitals and medical practices to align IoT and other technologies with business goals. She said, "They're trying to understand their data. They have it but want to know what it is telling them. 'Is it relevant? Is it not relevant? Is it revenue? Can I use this in another department?'"
The technology provider Insight similarly helps healthcare systems figure out where IoT would best work as part of a larger IT reconfiguration that aims to move from "an episodic care model to a value-based care delivery model," said David Le Penske, director of healthcare and life sciences at Insight. With medical care becoming more complex and fewer doctors in the U.S. medical system, healthcare "cries out" for remote care driven by IoT, he said.
Gregg PessinSenior analyst, Gartner
One of the biggest hurdles to widescale IoT implementation is that many healthcare systems still rely on on-premises electronic health record (EHR) systems that aren't made to share data, Le Penske said. Cloud computing helps to overcome this hurdle by merging disparate data sets from different systems. Still, some healthcare providers need to be guided to this next step, he said, because they look askance at new technology.
"They're not used to getting tremendous value for less amount of money that quickly," he added. "They don't know what the art of the possible is. They're busy managing their current infrastructure."
When Insight works with a healthcare organization, Le Penske said he and colleagues ask, "What would you love to do with your data but can't?" More often than not, the answer requires connecting systems. Insight recently solved this problem for a healthcare provider by building a platform that could run through the APIs of legacy systems, extract data and stitch the data together.
Sirius asks its healthcare customers to list all its departments, and then the two parties determine which data provides benefits to the outfit as a whole. It's an approach to IoT that is similar to how manufacturers use operational technology to benefit the entire organization instead of only one area, Klein said.
Jeff Becker, a Forrester Research senior analyst, recommended healthcare providers initially tackle a single use case when implementing IoT. "Say they want to extend vital sign monitoring from the ICU and hospital floor to the patient's home to improve chronic disease management," he cited as an example.
It's really a matter of connecting the healthcare IoT devices with a software platform that has authentication protocols, which itself should be connected to legacy EHR systems. From there, security is key but often a hurdle, Becker said. He recommended organizations take an inventory of all IoT devices and ensure they're safe from cyberattacks.
Pandemic will reveal a need for healthcare IoT
Despite having purchased the technology, hospitals haven't always prioritized IoT, Gartner's Pessin said. It's because they didn't recognize they had to create systems to connect the devices. "They didn't go out and purposely approach this as an IoT project," he said. "They just happened to have stuff that is IoT."
Becker said that with budgets shrinking, doctors and CIOs will have to demonstrate to boards of directors how IoT can improve COVID-19 treatment. He and other analysts believe there is a strong case; they envision IoT improving patient care and operations during and long after the pandemic.
"IoT plays a vital role in making healthcare environments more resilient to disruption," Klein said. "It's critical to finding efficiencies and opportunities for enhancements. There will be a lot of focus on process evaluation and how IoT can effectively monitor processes. Often, crisis situations bring out cooperation like never before and a realization that you need to adopt technology more quickly than before. That's very possible today."