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The Internet of Things – connecting everything and everyone

The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the most exciting concepts to emerge from the world of information and communications technologies (ICT) in recent decades.

Although IoT is not an entirely new concept, it has become a hot topic worldwide, as companies and entire industries are jumping on board to understand and exploit the potential of IoT in just about every field imaginable.

But what does it mean for health care and health and medical research? In this blog we take
a look at what the exciting and emerging world of IoT might mean for our industry.

What is IoT?

IoT is the idea that any device could be connected to the internet – and that means any device you could think of, large and small and everything in between.

According to one commentator, by 2020 around 50 billion devices will be connected to the internet.

But the focus is not so much on the device itself, or even on the application, as on the connections between things (and people). Forbes magazine contributor Jacob Morgan: ‘Anything that can be connected, will be connected’.

How does it work?

IoT relies on the ability of devices to capture and monitor data. Sensors and other electronic devices that collect and analyse data can be programmed to trigger events.

Imagine you’re at work, having a tough day, and all you can think about is that lovely cup of tea you’re going to enjoy when you get home that evening. But during the day someone at home finishes the last of the milk in your fridge and forgets to buy more. The smart device in the fridge notes the lack of milk and sends a message to your mobile phone, reminding you pick up some on your way home. Disaster averted.

In addition to reminding you to pick up supplies on the way home, another handy use of IoT might be a smart thermostat that collects data about when you are home and the temperature you usually set, then automatically adjusts itself to suit your preferences, so that you arrive to home to a warm house and can enjoy that cuppa in comfort.

Why connect?

Jacob Morgan cites a range of everyday conveniences and benefits, such as having your alarm clock notify your coffee maker to have your favourite brew ready minutes after it has woken you. Let’s say your calendar and car are connected through the internet, you’ll be shown how to get to your destination by the best route possible.

Stuck in traffic? No problem: a text message could be sent automatically from your car to the other party to let them know you’re delayed.

In addition to contributing to domestic bliss, there are obvious benefits from IoT for workplaces, communities, industries, cities and economies.

In the agricultural industry, IoT is reportedly reaping benefits through improved crop yields, operational efficiencies and reduced costs. Similarly in media and entertainment, manufacturing, finance and insurance, transportation and distribution, energy and utilities, law enforcement, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, to name but a few.

Here are a few examples of areas in which IoT is becoming ubiquitous:

  • smart cities (smart parking, smart roads/traffic congestion, smart lighting, smart waste management, sound monitoring)
  • smart environment (fire detection, earthquake/tsunami detection, monitoring air pollution and snow levels)
  • smart water (monitoring the quality of drinking water, chemical leakages in rivers and waterways, pollution levels in the ocean, water leakages and floods)
  • smart metering (monitoring emerging consumption, tank levels, photo-voltaics and silo stock)
  • security and emergencies (radiation levels, hazardous gases, liquids and perimeter access control)
  • retail (supply chain monitoring, product management and payment processing)
  • logistics (fleet tracking, item location)
  • industrial control (asset control, indoor air quality and temperature monitoring)
  • home automation (energy and water use, remote control appliances and intrusion detection)
  • eHealth (fall detection, patient monitoring, UV radiation).

IoT in Australia

The IoT movement is already well advanced in Australia. Looking at the above list, I am sure you are probably already thinking of a few relevant applications in your field or discipline.

Last month, Newie Ventures set up a pilot project at Newcastle University to test a smart parking service enabling motorists to find vacant parking spaces using a web page. Beyond the obvious benefits for Novacastrians, this project will provide real-world data to help cities around the world offer cost-effective and time-saving parking solutions.

IoT in health care

It is estimated that the IoT in health care will be worth $117 billion worldwide by 2020.

Keeping patients in hospital is expensive, and finding new and more efficient ways to deliver health services is crucial to the future of health care.

Earlier this month we reported on the use of mHealth to improve access and efficiency in health care delivery. This use of mobile devices is but one increasingly popular aspect of IoT.

A recent article described the use of ‘smart beds’ in hospitals to adjust to the needs of the patient without requiring manual adjustment by a nurse – and the attendant workplace health and safety risks.

Other uses of IoT in healthcare include:

  • Measurement and statistical analysis of physical and behavioural characteristics (biometrics) to help to authenticate a patient’s identity
    Keeping track of a patient as she or he moves through a health care facility
  • Gaining electronic access to a patient’s medical record between health care facilities
  • Ensuring patient compliance with prescribed medication after discharge
    Providing information and support for home-based rehabilitation
  • Monitoring the patient’s ongoing condition and alerting their treating physician to sudden and/or risky changes in their health status
  • Booking follow-up appointments
  • Using telemedicine to reduce the frequency of face-to-face medical appointments

Robust research will be critical in the IoT environment. All of the uses and potential uses of IoT need to be tested in the real world and evaluated scientifically and economically to provide evidence for improved efficacy and efficiencies in health care delivery.

This opens up new possibilities for research, from clinical trials to clinical practice; from laboratory research to epidemiological studies to social research; and from health care settings to community and social settings. It may be possible to save time by having surveys completed automatically; we could save money through automatic data transmission – those tedious hours of manual data cleaning and follow up for missing data could soon be a thing of the past.

Risks and challenges

For IoT to really come into its own, organisations and consumers will need to develop strong digital capabilities and literacy. As professionals in the health sector we may need to become more computer savvy, but the IoT is less about using electronic devices and knowing how to code them; it is more about understanding the power of data to create solutions that contribute towards improved health outcomes for everyone.

One of the challenges of IoT is having in place the appropriate communications infrastructure to enable the increasing complexity of digital information and connectivity. Some communities in the western region are yet to benefit from the rollout of the national broadband network (NBN), and mobile telephone and internet coverage can be sporadic and unreliable.

No doubt the IoT will present new challenges for the maintenance of data privacy and security – and new problems for scientific research, some of which we probably haven’t even thought of yet.

Although there are clear standards and protocols for the use of electronic devices and the data they yield in the health sector, there currently are no standards or protocols for the use and development of IoT as such in health. Given that laws and regulations usually lag behind innovation, governments and regulators will need to consider appropriate legislation to remove barriers to adoption of the mass connectivity enabled by IoT, as well as to mitigate potential risks and harms.

An exciting new frontier

The IoT is regarded as the next stage in the convergence of digital communications with the broader economy, and represents an exciting new frontier in health and research.

We need to think beyond the electronic devices and their touchscreens, and look to how IoT enables us to generate and collect data, and then use it to solve problems. While it is not without risks and challenges, the possibilities and potential for IoT are unlimited, even by our imaginations.