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Internet of Things and Health Care

March 2017

By Tom Stibolt, MD, Mobile Musings Column Editor

There is currently a lot of hype and various emotions ranging from excitement to dread regarding the Internet of Things. Simply put, the Internet of Things, or IoT, is the internetworking of physical devices, vehicles (also referred to as “connected devices” and “smart devices”), buildings, and other items—embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity that enable these objects to collect and exchange data. Many such devices already exist including controllers for smart light bulbs, voice activated appliances, other appliances with internet connectivity and some current automobiles. The IoT, in principle, allows objects to be sensed and/or controlled remotely across existing network infrastructure, creating opportunities for more direct integration of the physical world into computer-based systems, and resulting in improved efficiency, accuracy, and economic benefit in addition to reduced human intervention.

In health care, the IoT can potentially personalize care and treatment for patients. This is hoped to eventually improve care, increase access, and reduce health care costs. Fitness trackers represent an early example of IoT in health care with devices capable of making other measurements planned. IoT also will allow institutions to keep track of patients as they move through a health care facility.

It is not surprising that there are several hurdles that stand in the way of the rosy picture that IoT advocates paint. The first is a danger of overloading physicians with too much data and distracting them from their mission of treating patients. The potential for patients to provide vast amounts of data, much of which may have little relevance is immense. The second is the issue of providing security for the devices and the patients’ data. There have already been concerns raised about remotely programmable medical devices such as implantable defibrillators being reprogrammed by a hacker. Hackers have already demonstrated the ability to take over control of some current automobiles remotely. A contractor for the Department of Homeland Security spoke about it as a problem at the Health care Information and Management Systems Society meeting in 2015. A third hurdle is the reliability of the data supplied. Fitness trackers’ ability to monitor heart rate accurately has already been found less than perfect.

Since connected medical devices and applications are already part of the Internet of Medical Things, it is likely this trend will continue. How much they will integrate into patient care and other aspects of health care remains to be seen.

Editor’s note: The ATS does not endorse any of the programs or products mentioned in this column.

Last Reviewed: September 2017