Internet of Things will revolutionise the healthcare industry

12 December 2014

As connectivity becomes more ubiquitous it is expected to change the way we do many things: work, rest and play.

One of the areas where its impact may be felt most is in healthcare. The administration of healthcare is undeniably resource-heavy, not just in terms of personnel but also the many varieties of machines, instruments and materials needed to provide the level of care required to support a growing and ageing society. 

The costs associated with healthcare are increasing across the world, but many anticipate that the Internet of Things will help address this drastically, by introducing intelligent devices that will mitigate the need for expensive resources, particularly in the area of home healthcare. 

Clinical care

One of the earliest examples of the IoT in medical applications is in the clinical care of ongoing conditions. These are increasingly managed by patients themselves; using devices that help monitor their condition. It’s estimated that just 1% of ‘things’ are connected today and that includes the vast majority of medical devices, but the IoT is changing that rapidly.

The value of the data generated by connected devices in industrial environments has already been recognised, but that could be insignificant in comparison to the value of data that could provide early warnings of an asthma attack, heart arrhythmia or insulin drop, for example. 

Connecting these devices would give care providers access to vital signs from anywhere in the connected world, and it’s a scenario that is already more science fact than fiction. Microsoft’s cloud-based service, Azure, is a key element in an ongoing trial taking place in Sweden, the UK and the USA, which sees data from devices developed by Aerocrine AB being securely collected and shared over the internet. The devices test for Fractional exhaled Nitric Oxide (FeNO), a biomarker for allergic airway inflammation which is linked to asthma. The data is collected by the device and shared via the cloud, allowing it to be transferred from test locations across the world and analysed by Aerocrine in Sweden.

In another example, Philips has partnered with Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, to develop a medical-grade device that can help people suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. The device would be certified by regulatory bodies and its use prescribed by doctors, while the data it generates will be shared through the Philips Healthsuite Digital Platform to two FDA-approved clinical applications. The device will stay with the patient after leaving hospital, to monitor physical activity, respiratory rates, sleep quality and heart rate.

A caring society

Chronic conditions require close and often constant monitoring and it is these that can most effectively be addressed using medical devices that are IoT enabled. In addition there are numerous examples of health and fitness devices now available, which can monitor activity as well as heart rate. This can easily be extended to include safety monitors that can alert care providers when vulnerable patients suffer a fall, for example, and from here it is a small leap to enable the automated or remote dispensing of medication. 

Devices providing this level of care are what we refer to as actors; devices intended to collect and act on data, but the term isn’t limited to devices worn or carried by the patient. Any sensor or actuator instrumental in the administration of healthcare can be considered an actor in the IoT for Medical Devices. 

Clearly, the regulatory requirements imposed on devices developed for medical applications can introduce a barrier to change; larger devices such as MRI scanners will take longer to ‘upgrade’ than an infrared thermometer, for example. The challenges of how the data is managed apply to all and it is here where services will meet secure hardware. Embedded servers will become a key element in the infrastructure of the IoT for Medical Devices, providing trusted points of connectivity for a range of actors. According to a White Paper prepared by Tata Consultancy Services, the level of data generated by the IoT for Medical Devices will make standard architectures and platforms inadequate, while some devices will require a ‘real-time’ response which could be difficult to deliver using standard internet technologies. This will drive demand for high performance yet small and efficient servers that can be deployed in greater numbers wherever they are needed. These embedded servers will likely be based on industry-standard form factors using high performance embedded processors, such as those developed by leading semiconductor manufacturers. 

Future features

While the IoT for Medical Devices will most likely start with consumer-like devices that aren’t subject to stringent regulatory requirements, it will quickly extend to include those that are, including medical imaging equipment. These long-life, high-investment devices will benefit equally from being more connected, allowing them to be accessed remotely by specialist teams, giving them the chance to help diagnose patient conditions wherever they may be.

Further to this, devices that have yet to be imagined could soon contribute to the profession, such as intelligent refrigerators that know how much blood they have and its condition, or analytical instruments that can share their findings with larger databases intended to crunch through greater volumes of data to discover new treatments to life threatening conditions. 

The issue of security will be of high concern for medical data. It will fall to the embedded servers to provide the first line of defence against attacks both for actors and access points. Companies now developing these servers will look towards trusted partners for platform approaches that combine the best in class processors with industry-leading security solutions at both the software and hardware level.

Secure IoT access can be provided either directly or via a gateway, such as the Intel Gateway Solution for the Internet of Things which combines the products and special expertise from Intel, Wind River and McAfee to provide a secure and validated end-to-end solution for selected platforms such as the Intel Atom-38xx family. Wind River supplies the Wind River Intelligent Device Platform XT which includes the operating system (Wind River Linux5.0), pre-validated software stacks, hardware drivers and matching libraries and tools. McAfee Embedded Control provides features such as dynamic application whitelisting which ensures that only registered and verified applications can run. Intel provides the hardware platform itself plus hardware feature enhancements such as TPM (tamper proof module) and matching hardware-related software and stacks. 

The IoT for Medical Devices will provide patients with easier access to clinical care and allow an ageing population to remain independent for longer. The generation and sharing of increased levels of data, coupled with cloud-based processing, will lead to medical breakthroughs in record time, while greater access to world class equipment will allow specialists to treat more patients than ever before. 

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