The medical sphere has been rapidly modernizing over the past few years, integrating technology to facilitate, accelerate, and streamline processes with greater accuracy. Now, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the technology is becoming more connected to create a wider infrastructure that can cope with the increased burden on medical facilities. Known as the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), this system emphasizes interoperability among the 50,000 medical technologies currently available, via either an internal or external network.
As the World Economic Forum recently noted, “Our digital infrastructure needs strengthening to deal with the impact of COVID-19 and future public health crises. (…) A new age digital era has emerged.” Wearable devices, sensors, telemedicine solutions, machine-learning models, and computer-assisted services are increasing access to healthcare at a time when people need it most. In fact, big players like IBM, Siemens, and Johnson & Johnson have heavily committed to investing in IoMT during the crisis to provide a more holistic view of patients.
Here’s how the IoMT is meeting new healthcare demands during (and potentially beyond) COVID-19:
Remote Patient Monitoring
The pandemic has brought to light the need for systems that actively include and treat patients at a, particularly vulnerable time. Social distancing measures mean that many people cannot or are apprehensive about leaving their homes, putting their physical and mental health at greater risk, especially if they have pre-existing medical conditions.
IoMT offers digital medical services to patients with chronic diseases who need continuous care while self-isolating. Devices like biosensors, worn on the body and measure vitals like blood-oxygen or glucose levels, can connect with patients’ cell phones, computers, or tablets. These electronics then transmit the data to medical professionals, who can remotely monitor the patients’ progress. Not only is this information easier to track because of the specific device identification number, but it can also be converted into visual data, displaying patterns and anomalies that represent the effectiveness of the course of treatment being undertaken.
Biosensors additionally help ensure that patients comply with their medication guidelines. For instance, if the dosage and frequency deviate from the recommended amount, a biosensor will immediately alert medical professionals. Plus, because these sensors report in real-time, professionals can take action as soon as possible to prevent a deterioration in patients’ wellbeing.
The University of San Diego has been quick to embrace biosensors as a solution to the pandemic. Researchers have asked discharged COVID-19 patients to use a biosensor to monitor vital signs like their heart rate, oxygen saturation levels, activity level, and quality of sleep. The data is then fed to a specially-designed app, where patients take a daily questionnaire to submit qualitative data about their recovery. This technology reassures patients that their care doesn’t end once they leave the hospital and gives them a direct channel to notify professionals if their status changes.
Detecting & Assessing the Virus
IoMT is proving to be very powerful as both a reactionary and preventative solution for the COVID-19 virus. Although there is no vaccine for the virus yet, interconnected technology raises awareness about the need to self isolate or see a medical professional, ultimately curbing the spread of infection.
Experts from Fitbit have been using data from their wearable devices to uncover insights around people’s resting heart rates and daily activity patterns. An elevated resting heart rate has been associated with infection and has subsequently helped identify people with influenza-like illnesses that could be COVID-19. While the data cannot diagnose the virus, it can encourage susceptible persons to quarantine or take an official test.
Elsewhere, Epicore Biosystems has been exploring a sweat-sensing microfluid patch that monitors patients’ sweat cytokine levels to predict which COVID-19 cases could become life-threatening. Cytokines are small proteins that help coordinate the body’s immune responses, and patients with the COVID-19 virus are likely to have a higher volume of them, which can trigger a fatal inflammation.
Because cytokines can be measured through sweat, Epicore’s single-use patch is applied to a person’s skin and catches sweat through a series of chambers. The results are then analyzed through a connected mobile app, and physicians can classify at-risk patients. Even more promising is the potential for the technology to be built into N95 respirator masks, where it could track the health and fatigue of frontline medical staff.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, tests are continuing with a wireless sensor that sits on patients’ throats (the suprasternal notch, where airflow occurs closest to the skin) to document respiratory activity and coughing. The sensor transfers health data to a HIPAA-protected cloud, where a set of data algorithms specifically created to flag early symptoms associated with COVID-19 generate graphical summaries of the patient. The technology is so sophisticated that it may even recognize COVID-19 symptoms before individuals perceive them.
Alleviating Strain On Hospitals
Hospitals and medical organizations worldwide have had to cope with the pressure of increasing patient volumes, limited resources, and exhausted staff. IoMT is proving to be a much-needed logistical resource to alleviate the pandemic’s toll on institutional healthcare. For example, connected technology can track medicational inventory, confirm compliance with drug-storage conditions, boost energy-saving processes, and improve storage facilities.
Smart vaccine fridges play a noticeable role, as an IoMT platform processes internal sensors. The real-time analysis helps to implement temperature controls that prevent vaccines from spoiling. It also documents when the fridge door is opened, reducing the risk of theft or exposure to undesirable conditions. As COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be globally distributed soon, having the correct equipment to store the medicine is of utmost priority for hospitals and clinics.
In China, one smart hospital is completely operating with an IoMT model. Robots are carrying out all services, such as screening patients with 5G thermometers, using sensors to watch vital signs, and providing food, drinks, medicine, and entertainment. All actions and reactions are recorded on the cloud, allowing medical staff to treat patients at a safe distance. Simultaneously, disinfection robots routinely emit ultraviolet light throughout the hospital, decontaminating surfaces by tearing stands of the virus DNA apart.
Technology itself can be monitored through IoMT capabilities. MRI machines, X-ray machines, CT scanners, and more can be remotely checked for performance issues. By integrating with hospital equipment, IoMT solutions can make remote diagnostic reports, predict maintenance issues, and even conduct upgrades. This connectivity reduces downtime for professionals who need to use the technology and reduces the need for physical contact with machines and contamination.
Predictions state that the IoMT market size will be worth $142.45 billion by 2026 – a figure that may exponentially grow due to the COVID-19 crisis. As IoMT continues to demonstrate efficiency and effectiveness during the pandemic, more medical verticals are likely to adopt the tech on a long-term basis.
The current conditions should be seized as an opportunity for healthcare institutions and patients to familiarize themselves with IoMT devices and services. As they do so, they not only contribute to data and systems that help in the fight against COVID-19, they can prevent it from occurring again.