Healthcare’s digital transformation has recently been accelerated out of urgent necessity due to the recent pandemic. The technology world has stepped up to help medical professionals on the frontlines get what they require and allow people to stay home as well as stay connected.
For example, companies in Spain are facilitating reliable 4G and 5G connectivity to enable complex services and technology solutions for Europe’s newest and largest field hospital. In the UK, Vodafone has provided free network support, technical assistance and increased 4G network capacity around the area of the temporary Nightingale Hospital so that staff and patients can stay in touch with their families and loved ones.
But healthcare was well on its way to digitization before the recent pandemic. Companies such as Vodafone already connect more than 10 million medical devices. The benefits of IoT in this sector are similar to those in other industries, such as higher levels of automation, greater efficiency and more insight, but the applications differ greatly as their outcomes are often lifesaving.
Enabling massive scale and easier adoption with LPWA
Further digitization and expansion on applications in healthcare depends on the ability to scale. Low power wide area networks (LPWA) will be an important enabler. This technology supports more widespread communication, longer device battery life and lower costs in a wider infrastructure footprint. LPWA is specifically designed to connect low bandwidth devices, such as many of those in the medical field, through low power but with wider and deeper network coverage.
LPWA network technologies can provide secure, strong coverage over large areas and within buildings and enable massive scale by connecting millions of devices in a single deployment. While many of these devices will require low bandwidth, they’ll have high impact. Only a few bytes of data is transmitted per day for a majority of these use cases, but the data is vital for patients, doctors, field workers, manufacturers and insurance companies to make better decisions.
The care continuum
The combination of new portable devices and network technology makes embedded secure, direct and simple connectivity possible. These capabilities are making IoT adoption in healthcare easier, while growing the care continuum. Use cases such as remote patient monitoring, remote consultations, digitized clinical trials, effective medicine and vaccine delivery are already enabled. Tracking patient flow and equipment is a burgeoning area. Here are a few real-world examples:
- IoT allows for bi-directional care from the patient to the doctor or, if needed, to the manufacturer and back. Patient self-management is imperative in our current circumstances. Prior, this flow was already helping people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and sleep apnea.
- A medical device relays the patient’s health data to the doctor and the device’s operational data to the manufacturer by either directly embedding the connectivity technology in the device or using a connectivity gateway, such as a bedside transmitter. The device manufacturer can ascertain if it’s operating correctly or a healthcare professional can see if it’s configured properly for the particular patient. Aside from helping avoid potential emergencies, the remote monitoring also fills the information gaps between in-person doctor visits.
- IoT can help improve efficiency in clinical trials that typically cost pharmaceutical companies tens of millions of dollars from start to finish. Digital health technology reduces cost and can improve the accuracy of data capture. Real-time capture of deep levels of insight helps identify ineffective trials faster.
- For medicine distribution, wireless sensors enable cold chain monitoring so life-saving vaccines arrive at their destinations at the intended quality level. Near real-time information about storage temperatures and other critical issues is delivered from vaccine refrigerators, and medical professionals can then address any problems before the vaccines spoil.
- The use of drones to transport medicine such as insulin in remote regions and in times of natural disasters is on the rise. In addition, medical drones have demonstrated success for blood, defibrillator and organ delivery in several countries.
- The use of mobile private networks (MPN) in hospitals is also gaining significant interest, as they offer high reliability and high security on campus. Potential use cases include asset tracking and monitoring patient flow to better manage throughput and capacity.
IoT is poised to solve a host of issues within the healthcare system. A common but unaddressed need around asset management of consignment stock in hospitals is one of those issues. Often manufacturers will retain ownership of medical equipment or devices until they are used, and typically they don’t know how much of the stock is available or what condition it’s in. For instance, a surgical kit is made up of different components, but it’s difficult to know what needs to be replenished when. IoT can automate this process.
Even more with 5G
No conversation about digital healthcare is complete without a mention of 5G. While many of the examples mentioned run on today’s networks, 5G will open up further opportunities. Its high speed and reliability can support high resolution image transmission for rapid decision making in hospitals or in cases where remote diagnostics are needed. Even more, remote surgery will be possible.
In the meantime, as we slowly emerge from the global pandemic, the learnings from healthcare will surely inform future infrastructure and IoT will be at the core.
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