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COVID-19 puts healthcare IoT's potential in the spotlight

Healthcare professionals can use IoT sensors to contain outbreaks by tracking equipment, personnel and proper hand hygiene in medical facilities and assist patients remotely.

With the rapid and global spread of the COVID-19 virus, it is more vital than ever that healthcare organizations take advantage of technology available, such as healthcare IoT devices, to combat the spread of disease.

One of the side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is rapid exploration and adoption of new technology, whether it is for businesses working remotely and serving customers in new ways or clinicians and researchers striving for treatment breakthroughs. As a result of the crises, IoT and related technologies have emerged into mainstream applications.

At a high level, healthcare IoT devices can gather information about patients without human touch, Gartner analyst Gregg Pessin said. For example, healthcare workers can use IoT devices to remotely monitor vitals of patients in an isolation ward. Remote monitoring works for patients at home, too, and can inform virtual caregivers.

Gregg PessinGregg Pessin

Healthcare IoT devices track location of people, equipment

Within facilities, real-time location systems (RTLS) can help track patients, visitors, nurses and orderlies through RFID bracelets. "Mustering, or identifying where people are located at any moment, is an important function during crises. This is made much easier with this technology," Pessin said. For example, if rooms are equipped with RTLS beacons, hospital administrators can identify who is quarantined in a room and who has gone in and out of that room. "This has some security tie-ins with cameras -- considered part of the IoT family -- and access control systems, like badge readers," he added.

Healthcare facilities can also use RTLS to identify where important equipment is located. If a hospital puts RFID tags on all ventilators and has the beacon infrastructure in place, they can identify where ventilators are at any moment. Hospital administrators can also use RTLS technologies to track whether caregivers practice proper hand hygiene.

Remote patient monitoring of individuals in quarantine areas is working well and saving personal protective equipment (PPE), Pessin said. Nurses don't have to go into the room to take patient vitals as often, which keeps them from using PPE each time they enter the room.

Taqee KhaledTaqee Khaled

IoT adoption and telehealth to see continued growth

The current pandemic has made it obvious where systems were ready and where they weren't, said Taqee Khaled, head of strategy at digital consultancy Nerdery.

"It has been a boon -- almost a watershed moment -- particularly for telehealth," Khaled said. "For years, companies have been building infrastructure and just hoping for a shift in consumer behavior."

The adoption has been dramatic. "We had previously projected 36 million telehealth visits for 2020, but we now think there will be a demand for as many as 1 billion telehealth visits this year," Forrester Research analyst Arielle Trzcinski said.

However, the same rapid uptake has not yet been demonstrated for medical IoT, per se, Khaled said.

"It has generally been more difficult to make the IoT infrastructure case; executives have looked for use cases and benefits in the here and how," he said. "With COVID-19, it would have helped to have distributed, near-field systems and edge computing in place; there is a dawning recognition of that missed opportunity and the need for rapid investment, now."

Nate BeyorNate Beyor

In the near term, IoT-enabled track and trace applications will assist medical supply chain management -- especially, with the most critical supplies, including PPE and ventilators, said Nate Beyor, managing director and partner of healthcare at Boston Consulting Group. Consumer-grade tech with an IoT aspect -- such as fitness monitoring tools -- already serves a role in remote monitoring. With the market opening from the sudden growth of telemedicine, professional-grade IoT-enabled remote monitoring and testing of vital signs should follow, Beyor said. For example, the University of Hong Kong has been successful in using a commercial AI and IoT platform from Biofourmis to monitor patients who test positive for COVID-19.

Healthcare technology still requires greater infrastructure readiness

IoT opportunities gaining visibility through the pandemic also highlight connectivity challenges, a fundamental requirement for IoT implementations. None of these concepts can exist without a strong network to support them, said Mark Dzuban, president and CEO of Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE).

"Our focus is on building an environment to make these new things deployable at scale with bandwidth efficiency and commonality," he said. For instance, a lot of attention is being given to aging-in-place initiatives, which support telehealth and telemedicine ecosystems in the home and beyond.

The experiences we are all having now will deeply accelerate the acceptance of real-time monitoring of people and patients.
Taqee KhaledHead of strategy, Nerdery

To support telemedicine and other high-bandwidth applications, organizations must find ways to provide more uniform Wi-Fi coverage in homes, hospitals and other structures -- especially, through engaging with architectural design and building standards, Dzuban said. For example, the global arm of SCTE, the International Society of Broadband Experts, is piloting 10G to provide the granularity needed for telemedicine, whether that involves IoT sensor data or visuals.

Similarly, medical technology organizations seek to apply global connectivity services to medical IoT. For example, Hunterdon Healthcare lost $30,000 worth of vaccines that were not properly refrigerated and looked to IoT to enable automated temperature monitoring. As the LoRaWAN IoT network provider for Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, N.J., Senet worked with its partner Chenoa to enable this IoT application via Chenoa's Triota healthcare platform.

COVID-19 virus shapes the future of medical IoT tech

"As we come out of the current situation, we will see wider usage of IoT for clinical information collection and sensing of the hospital environment through RTLS and other similar technologies," Pessin said. The adoption of more automated clinical data collection methods pushed into use recently will also likely become a permanent capability.

With the possibility that the COVID-19 virus may become a seasonal reality, more IoT opportunities should be explored, Khaled said. Healthcare providers are testing the possibility of embedded temperature sensors for monitoring the febrile states of individuals and more preventive monitoring of seniors, whether at home or in care facilities. IoT will be part of the equation.

"The experiences we are all having now will deeply accelerate the acceptance of real-time monitoring of people and patients," Khaled said. "I have had [vice presidents] of strategy and CIOs and healthcare organizations tell me that, thanks to COVID-19, they have made more decisions on tech investments and strategies in the past three or four weeks than they have made in the previous three years."

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