The Internet of Things in Healthcare
Coined by British technologist Kevin Ashton in 1999, the term “Internet of Things” (IoT) was used to describe a system in which devices are connected over the internet via sensors to minimise the need for constant human intervention. Specifically, it was initiated as a proposed system for automation of the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tagging of Procter and Gamble’s supply chain inventory to identify and track merchandise (Ashton, 2009).
A networking system of electronic devices capable of exchanging and storing data over an internet connection to form an infrastructure, IoT allows for greater integration of physical operations and computer-based applications. It encompasses smart technology, evidenced in initiatives such as smart cities, smart homes and even smart wear used in healthcare, amongst many others. It aims to improve lives, communication and connectedness through its universally unhindered interoperability.
Communication between internet-enabled devices is not a new concept. The simple act of being able to switch a device on or off over the internet is the IoT in its most basic application.
Nonetheless, scepticism surrounds the mass applicability of IoT. Much of this relates to apprehension regarding security and privacy issues—the unintended consequence of technological overconnectedness being increased vulnerability to hacking through exposure of personal information.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding IoT, it holds the greatest promise for application in the field of health care. IoT can provide solutions to the limitations of patient monitoring, disease management, and rapid response. It augments the capabilities of health care personnel, facilities and technologies within hospitals as well as remotely, by alleviating the need for constant physical oversight while maintaining supervision of patients.
IoT is a breakthrough for ubiquitous health management and monitoring as it is uncompromised by distance or location. Embedded with wearable, implantable and even ambient (environmental) sensors, IoT technology enables the gathering and simultaneous analysis of multiple vital parameters. Equipped with communication and GPS capabilities, IoT facilitates storage of patient information in a secure cloud-based database which can be accessed via computer or Smartphone, by both patient and healthcare professionals. It further enables geographical tracking of a patient – an important feature when monitoring patients with memory loss conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Also, physiological data reports are uploaded in real-time, ensuring that health personnel can respond promptly to any changes in vitals.
Ambient assisted living, advocated by Dohr, Modre-Osprian, Drobics, Hayn, and Schreier (2010), is a precise advantage of the IoT as it employs sensor-based interconnected technologies to enable support of people who are elderly and also those with special needs, as they perform their daily routines in their own homes.
Accelerators are an example of a sensor chiefly employed in wireless health monitoring devices for elderly care, as they measure positioning and proximity. Thus, they store and transmit data related to the likelihood of the wearer experiencing a fall. Other sensors include electrocardiograms, which are used to monitor heart activity of patients with chronic cardiac conditions; glucometers to monitor sugar levels for diabetes management; and, pulse oximeters to monitor pulse rate and oxygen saturation for cardiorespiratory health conditions.
The versatility of IoT technology has also seen its application in fitness management. Individuals monitor their daily exercise regimes in conjunction with a mobile app, which stores data and keeps track of their progress (Khanna & Misra, 2014). Sensors which measure physiological parameters like body temperature, body weight, waistline, and activity level give a clear indication of the fitness level of a person and also facilitate adherence to a healthy lifestyle.
The ease of operability facilitated by IoT has eliminated much of the inconvenience and cost of clinical supervision. In addition, it has overcome the inefficiencies of traditional cumbersome equipment. With sensors inconspicuously set into wearable mediums such as compact wrist-worn devices or light weight chest straps, IoT technology enhances the efficiency of the health management system while adding value to the lives of its end users.