The Internet of Things is already transforming industries by creating streams of data that yield insights businesses can use to improve efficiency, reduce costs, or create value. From making global supply chains more intelligent to creating smart cities that are more responsive to citizens’ needs, IoT is improving productivity and changing the way organizations operate. Now it’s time to build a connected network to reduce healthcare costs and save lives.
Spending on healthcare is out of control in the U.S. Americans spend approximately $10,000 per person — more than $3.35 trillion in 2016 — but the outcomes lag behind those of other developed nations. Politicians proposing reform typically focus on how to pay for care rather than on ways to improve outcomes. It’s an argument that has raged for decades. Perhaps we can reduce cost and improve health at the same time, healthcare industry disruption via the Internet of Health is the answer.
An Internet of Health could solve essential problems through a population-oriented approach to healthcare. As things stand now, expensively educated doctors and clinicians can only treat one patient at a time, requiring the attention of a healthcare team just to arrive at a diagnosis. This is a needlessly costly and inefficient approach. An Internet of Health operating on a foundation of interconnected IoT devices could serve as a population-focused mechanism to promote preventive care and early disease detection.
Why Early Detection Is Essential
Heart disease and cancer kill more than 1.2 million Americans every year. In many cases, there are early warning signs that can alert people to these conditions, and the earlier signs of the diseases are detected, the better the patient’s chances for survival. As Dr. Etienne Krug of The World Health Organization notes, “Diagnosing cancer in late stages, and the inability to provide treatment, condemns many people to unnecessary suffering and early death."
The American Cancer Society advocates for early detection, noting that the survival rate for stage 0 or 1 breast cancer is virtually 100 percent but that stage 4 patients have a five-year survival rate of only 22 percent. Similarly, heart disease is easier to treat when detected early — before further damage to the muscles in the heart occurs. But the signs can be confusing for many patients, who only contact their physician when they suffer a heart attack or experience unmistakable symptoms.
In the current healthcare system, doctors are advocating elimination of annual health exams, while everyone uses their own senses to detect that there’s a health problem; the problem stems from the fact that if a harmful disease is felt by the patient, then it is already too late to treat effectively. Clearly this is not working, diseases that are treatable in the early stages are also the leading causes of death. Sensors that have powered incredible transformations in other industries can inspire a rethinking of healthcare delivery too, prioritizing early detection.
Cheaper, Faster, Automated Diagnostics
Affordable, consumer-friendly diagnostics that can rapidly detect diseases and proactively monitor health are already making inroads in the medical community. Last year, the National Cancer Institute awarded $2.5 million to further research by UCLA’s Dr. David Wong, who is exploring a promising new approach to the early detection of lung cancer via analysis of patients’ saliva. Researchers are exploring similar tests for a host of other illnesses, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s and an array of viruses.
What if advanced diagnostic tools were integrated with consumer products, such as coffee mugs and drinking glasses, to enable automated salivary analysis at home? It may sound like science fiction, but so did smartphones a generation or two ago. As computing power gets cheaper, a medical lab on a chip comes in smaller packages, and as sensors proliferate to support the Internet of Things, medical devices built into consumer products and public spaces could form the backbone of an Internet of Health.
In addition to consumer products, Internet of Health devices could monitor public spaces to keep populations safer. For decades, air quality sensors have warned city officials of spikes in pollutants. Affordable, powerful sensors deployed in supermarkets, restaurants and other public spaces could eventually provide an early warning system for foodborne viruses like E. coli and norovirus, preventing outbreaks and saving lives. Water quality sensors could prevent exposure to lead poisoning, averting a grave health crisis such as that currently faced by the residents of Flint, Michigan.
Healthcare sensors don't have to be health grade to contribute; fitness tracking devices could detect changes in a person’s walking gate, or abnormal heart rate periods during sleep or activity could detect minor changes that indicate larger issues. Today, getting a device through the FDA could take years or decades, since we want to ensure that it is accurate, and provides minimal false positives – these can only be solved if we are willing to change our behavior and understanding of how these detections can be made useful, perhaps through multiple sources of data that can corroborate detection of disease, or advise doctors to consider a disease next time they see a healthcare provider for any other reason.
Our Big data and Machine Learning are very well capable of correlating the available data with disease from just about any sensor that can detect our presence.
Challenges to Implementing an Internet of Health
Although the benefits to deploying an Internet of Health are clear, there will be barriers that must be overcome — some physical and others psychological. On the consumer device front, patients will understandably have privacy concerns about transmitting highly sensitive biometrics to the Internet of Health. But this is an obstacle that can be surmounted, as the widespread acceptance of online shopping has demonstrated.
Today, nearly 80 percent of Americans make purchases online, even though it requires the leap of faith that their sensitive financial data won’t fall into the wrong hands. Two-thirds of Americans manage their banking online, experience and convenience having convinced them that any associated risks are acceptable. With the right product design and security assurances, people can assess the benefits vs. the risks and choose to be more proactive in monitoring their wellness through the Internet of Health.
The active participation of the medical community will be essential in creating trust in the Internet of Health. There will undoubtedly be some resistance to the notion — healthcare is a business, after all, and industries typically resist disruption until a tipping point is reached. But by demonstrating the utility of diagnostic devices and sensors to the community of clinicians, device-makers could win powerful allies. After all, a reduction in US healthcare cost by 20% would be a reduction of 20% of the revenue of the healthcare system suppliers and providers. They can only hold their status for so long, witness the digital camera decimating the photographic film industry, or email and the Internet impacting US mail service.
Power sources to the sensors might seem to be a serious impediment to widespread deployment of an Internet of Health. Sensors that monitor air and water quality, conduct diagnostic tests, remind people to take medications, etc., need a convenient power source to be practical and attractive to the public. Wired devices won’t fit the bill, nor will devices powered by disposable or rechargeable batteries that require user intervention.
The scale of the deployment alone requires a form of wireless power. Consider that by 2020, experts estimate that more than 20 billion Internet of Things devices will be in operation. Even if Internet of Health devices comprise just one percent of that total, that translates into more than 200 million devices — too many to run practically via wired or battery-sourced power.
The Internet of Health Future Is Now
The good news is, the power challenge has already been overcome. Remote power that safely distributes energy like Wi-Fi is a reality today, used in applications like automotive sensors, electronic shelf tags, smartphones — and medical devices. Using a built-in microchip receiver, devices with wireless charging capabilities send out a beacon to find a transmitter, which sends power along the same path, bouncing safely off walls and objects while avoiding people and pets to power devices.
With the wireless power challenge solved, all that remains is for current device trials to bear fruit and innovators to imagine even more lifesaving applications to build unstoppable momentum for the Internet of Health. Given how much more it costs to treat advanced-stage diseases, the potential for saving money is enormous. But more importantly, the potential to save lives is incalculable.
About the author
Hatem Zeine is Founder and CTO of Ossia, makers of Cota remote wireless power technology, where he leads a team of scientists and engineers engaged in developing new wireless power innovations.
An accomplished inventor, Zeine holds more than 41 U.S. patents as well as 370 filed globally. Zeine is also an industry thought leader, tireless advocate for the tech industry and recognized expert on the potential of wireless power. Prior to founding Ossia, Zeine was a principal software architect at Microsoft. Early in his career, he founded Zeine Technological Applications, later known as Estarta Solutions, now the largest systems integrator in the Middle East. He holds a degree in physics from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom and currently lives in Bellevue, Washington.