Today, we have more information about the human body and health than ever before. Developments in AI/ML are improving the research methods, diagnostic tools, and treatments available to medical professionals every day. More inclusive research has resulted in more effective forms of treatment for a wider variety of people. The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to an increased focus on the importance of public and mental health.
Despite this influx of information, awareness, and advancements, the healthcare experience can be negative for many people. The healthcare system as we may know it today faces a multitude of challenges, including the struggle to secure timely appointments, prolonged wait times, delayed delivery of test results and insights, a scarcity of easily accessible and understandable information regarding personal health, and the burden of exceptionally high costs.
So, how can we improve healthcare, medical, and wellness experiences in pursuit of a healthier society? The answer may lie in the ability to harness the power of the Internet of Things (IoT) and connected health devices – also known as the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT).
What are Connected Health Devices?
Connected health devices are small, wireless, often wearable electronic gadgets equipped with sensors that allow users to monitor their physical and mental condition based on physiological health indicators.
These indicators can be as simple as one’s heart rate or temperature, but they can also be complex; some connected health devices use embedded medical testing capabilities to collect data on the chemical composition of the user’s sweat, saliva, and blood.
The data gathered by these devices is typically delivered to an accompanying app, where it is automatically analyzed using artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML). The health insights provided by these analyses can help users track progress toward specific health or fitness goals, monitor chronic health conditions, and even automate medicine delivery.
While such devices may sound futuristic, many exist and are in use today. Patients with diabetes often use wearable devices that perform continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) to manage their blood sugar levels without having to rely on finger pricks or last-minute physical cues. “Smart insulin pens” can use CGM data to calculate the exact dosage of insulin needed and when it should be taken.
Of course, diabetes is not the only area of medicine with uses for connected medical devices. There are also health devices that monitor sleep and track bodily rhythms. Tooth sensors promise to provide another kind of continuous health monitoring based on the information that can be gleaned from saliva. People with digestive problems can swallow a vibrating capsule that simulates stomach contractions to speed up digestion. Various types of smart patches embedded with IoT can adhere to a patient’s skin and monitor physiological signs or even deliver medicine. The applications for connected health devices are endless.
The Benefits of Connected Health Devices
As demonstrated above, the expanded use of the IoMT and connected health devices could give patients more autonomy when making health-related decisions. Easily accessible data and information – the automated interpretation of which results in immediately actionable insights – could empower patients to easily manage health concerns like chronic illness, periods of recovery following catastrophic health events, and the increased upkeep that comes with aging.
Because the data collected by connected health devices is analyzed in real time, patients may also be able to identify urgent warning signs of sudden health events and seek help in a timely manner. Finally, the possibility for automated dose calculations and drug delivery when using connected health devices can provide peace of mind to patients who have to regularly self-administer medications.
Ultimately, connected health devices can allow patients to better care for themselves, in turn reducing health anxiety and improving overall quality of life.
Connected health devices and the IoMT also have the potential to be exceptionally valuable tools for care providers. Under our current healthcare system, patients typically only interact with their healthcare provider when something is wrong; consequently, modern medicine is mostly reactionary instead of preventative.
When patients do have health complaints, most of the data used to make diagnoses is either self-reported by patients or collected discretely (meaning at spaced-out instances over a long period) and invasively. Taking advantage of connected health technologies would enable physicians to perform preemptive, non-invasive, continuous data collection, which could improve patients’ lived experiences of health, enhance diagnostic processes, and allow for more preventative care.
Furthermore, if more patients were prescribed connected health devices, doctors and researchers would have access to population-level insights, which could have serious public health implications.
More generally, the remarkable potential of connected health devices in a medical setting can be largely attributed to their convenience and relatively low costs. The IoMT can allow patients and doctors to collaborate more efficiently while minimizing in-person interactions and costs, which could ultimately result in higher compliance, reduced financial stress, and fewer expended resources on the care provider’s part.
The Challenges of Connected Health Devices
Despite all the benefits that connected health devices could bring to both patients and providers, they are rarely used in formal healthcare settings today. This is because three significant challenges stand in the way of mass implementation:
Security and Privacy
Developing SoCs that can reliably encrypt data and detect vulnerabilities while remaining compatible with an ever-expanding IoT is a top priority for providers. This endeavor is especially important for connected health devices due to the sensitive nature of the data being collected and the potentially drastic consequences of a hacked connected health device not working properly.
The hardware associated with connected health devices is rigorously tested to ensure that it is safe and reliable. For most electronic devices, that process of testing is all that would be required before they could be brought to market; however, any device that claims to help diagnose, treat, or manage a disease or anything else related to the user’s health must also receive FDA approval.
While FDA requirements exist to protect consumers and healthcare providers by ensuring that only trusted tools are being used when stakes are high, the process of getting approval is long, tedious, and expensive, which can significantly delay the rollout of new connected health devices.
Questions surrounding how connected health devices can be set up for mass use in a way that is practical, ethical, equitable, and safe must be grappled with before the technology can be rolled out. What hardware and software updates will hospitals need to support connected health device use? What do patients need to know about connected health devices to provide informed consent? Where will public healthcare institutions get funding for connected health device infrastructure? What are the limitations of connected health devices as diagnostic and treatment tools? Healthcare providers often hesitate to recommend connected health devices to patients while these questions remain unanswered.
Looking to the Future
While the formal use of connected health devices in healthcare settings is mostly aspirational at this point, it is by no means a pipe dream. The technology exists and is getting better every day. Many products compatible with the IoMT have already sought and received FDA approval, and many others are in the process.
Though still developing, security concerns are mostly solved for the time being. The only true remaining hurdle is designing a system that supports the use of connected health devices at scale and putting it into effect.
Connected health devices can function as tools to improve the patient experience, harness the power of continuous data collection for improved diagnosis and treatment, and dramatically reduce the costs and inconveniences associated with healthcare. In the years to come, we’ll continue to witness how connected health devices can fundamentally alter our healthcare system for the better.