The so-called Internet of Things is a term used to describe physical objects that are Internet connected through software, enabling them to communicate with each other. In our everyday lives, we walk through smart cities, in which our transportation is monitored in real-time, our power outlets report back to our utility companies and even our vending machines send inventory information. The name of the game is information and data, but is the health care industry keeping up with the technology at its fingertips?

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The IoT Tech Expo took place in London, UK, this week and explored innovations across a number of industries, including health care.
Image credit: IoT Tech Expo

The Internet of Things (IoT) Tech Expo took place in London, UK, this week to examine the latest innovations within this data-driven landscape. Medical News Today was there to investigate how these innovations could benefit the medical community.

Technology research group Gartner predicts that by 2020, there will be 20.8 billion connected “things.”

With such potential for growth, there was – not surprisingly – row upon row of booths at the expo populated by companies that can offer IoT solutions for businesses and industries.

The amount of “smart” solutions, both big and small, was staggering. Interestingly, however, in this vast landscape of tech solutions, the “Digital Health Innovation Lab” was relatively small.

Tucked into a corner in the back of the exhibition center were five booths dedicated to “smart” health.

At one such booth was Chris Coulson, consultant otologist at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in the UK and managing director of endoscope-i, a company that has created an endoscopic imaging system for the iPhone.

He demonstrated how the device, which easily attaches to an iPhone, can provide patients with instant access to the videos the endoscope-i takes of the inside of their ears. For otologists, the benefit is that it enables rapid, easy storage and sharing of the results with patients and clinicians alike.

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Chris Coulson demonstrates the endoscope-i for MNT.

It also provides a portable means of facilitating endoscopic fiberoptic intubations anytime, anywhere – think in terms of remote locations in the world.

But a surprising benefit is for veterinarians, who are already using the device in their clinics, where it facilitates endoscopy for small and large animals.

Another company presenting at the Digital Health Innovation Lab was Medopad, which is a mobile health platform that aims to deliver clinical information directly to doctors, wirelessly.

With Medopad, a doctor can access patient records, images and lab results on a tablet, rather than having to physically go to the lab or comb through a patient’s physical file. What this means is that the doctor can spend more time with the patient, rather than filling out forms and ticking boxes.

Essentially, it enables the physician to access all the data he or she needs immediately, saving time and reducing risks of making the wrong decision based on an incomplete view of the patient’s data.

The company also has a patient monitoring solution, which connects patient devices – such as the Apple Watch, a self-monitoring watch that collects data on the daily activity of the wearer – with their clinical teams.

What companies like Medopad are aiming to do is to bridge the gap between patient and doctor. We now have the technology to monitor our own heart rates, activity levels, glucose levels and more. The wrists of people walking along the streets are now adorned with wearable devices that are constantly capturing health data.

The problem is, how do we harness our own data and share it with our health professionals in a meaningful way?

In a panel discussion on how the IoT can transform health care, Dr. Shafi Ahmed, consultant general at Royal London and St. Bartholomew Hospitals in the UK, noted that an estimated 500 million wearables will be sold on the market for patients by 2020.

However, he said the integration of this data is the key thing:

”The problem is implementation. The transformation of how to use these great innovations is the challenge. There are many debates about security and confidentiality, and the problem with the NHS [National Health Service] as a whole is that we work in silos. There are small pockets of work being done. How do you connect that?”

Dr. Ahmed pointed to current doctor’s appointments, many of which are already being conducted through telephone consultations. If we are able to have connections with wireless blood pressure gauges, for example, suddenly the doctor’s appointment becomes virtual, which would be a great cost-saver.

As part of the same panel, David Doherty, from a company called 3G Doctor, noted that we have this huge potential to connect things. But potential is the key thing here.

“Boilers and traffic lights are connected, but blood glucose monitors aren’t,” he said. Doherty sees the potential of the IoT and health care as a preventive one, adding that “every hospital has a stroke unit, they just don’t have a stroke prevention unit.”

The beauty of using our own self-monitored health data is that we can see patterns emerging before they become a problem, but a widely implemented mechanism through which we can share data with our doctors is not currently possible.

Why not? The benefits for us as individual patients are certainly clear, and the technology is already here. It would appear that the issue is one of security and implementation.

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The Digital Health Innovation Lab was relatively small and wedged into a corner at the back of the conference. Can health care take center stage in the tech arena?

How do we securely share our health data, and how do we do it in a linked up way? As with any wireless system, the issue of security is a concern.

If someone hacks into our bank accounts, the bank is responsible for a security breach and will shield the customer from harm. But if someone hacks into a person’s individual health data that is part of the IoT and, for example, changes their drug prescription to one that is detrimental to their health, the potential for harm is much greater.

This is the obstacle the health care industry faces in the wake of the IoT. Perhaps a better title for this article is, “How can health not get hacked in the Internet of Things?”

But the truth is, the way health care gets delivered is changing, and it should change, using the technology that is available. The most promising aspect of using this tech is the potential for preventive care.

If large populations are providing the medical community with self-monitored data, the opportunities for innovation are endless. Patterns on a range of illnesses – such as cancer or even disease outbreaks like the latest Zika scare – can be made instantly available to researchers and scientists.

Any revolution in how health care is delivered, however, will need to be patient-led.

“We have to control the technology, and the patients are part of that,” said Dr. Ahmed. “It’s up to you to come to us to say what’s important to you. We’ll listen to you ultimately, and that will shape the future.”

The vision of the future of health care, in which patient data is more readily available for clinicians, is certainly possible with the technology we have available. How it is implemented, and when, is the unknown variable.

Hopefully, in the years to come, the Health Innovation Labs at tech conferences will come out of the corner and take center stage. Our health depends on it.