From hospital to home

The hospital of the future will be a network

5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) are key enablers of connected healthcare. In fact, 5G networks and IoT devices are helping with illness prevention, diagnostics, treatment and after-care. Plus, they’re delivering efficiency and optimisation savings with healthcare assets and buildings. Yet we’re only at the start of the journey to realise the full potential of IoT for connected healthcare.

Things can make it better

The ‘things’ in IoT encompass everything connected to the internet. The transformative power comes from these devices talking with other intelligent machines and systems. Simply defined, IoT is: sense, gather data, analyse, act, learn. Repeat. In many industries, this is happening now – your order from Amazon or Ocado was picked and packed by IoT robots. The pandemic accelerated ‘digital channel shift’ in healthcare. IoT devices are being used to diagnose faster and more accurately. They’re personalising treatment and after-care. They’re radically improving quality of life for people with chronic conditions. And they’re streamlining healthcare operations. For patients and practitioners, IoT breaks down geographical boundaries. What was previously only possible in a hospital or other clinical setting can now take place at home. And IoT promises much greater efficiency for all kinds of healthcare assets. For example, hospital buildings are getting smarter through sensors that measure everything from energy usage and occupancy to fridges and car parks. This data can now be visualised and managed through a single, simple dashboard. Given the impact of the pandemic on patient services and healthcare budgets, the timing couldn’t be better. So, let’s explore some of the IoT healthcare possibilities and challenges ahead.

Healthy living and prevention

A variety of IoT sensors and wearable devices are remotely monitoring and protecting patients. For example, asthma management where severe cases have complex needs. IoT devices gather data for personalising care. For example, wearable devices can incentivise healthy behaviours around diet, nutrition and exercise. As a result, people are getting better at self-managing their condition. In Italy, Vodafone’s 5G testbed is putting many medical IoT devices through trials. Like a smart t-shirt with cardiac and respiratory sensors. Its ‘wearability’ could prove particularly suitable for children and for treating sleep disorders. Smart clothing is rapidly evolving with unobtrusive sensors, so people can go about their day as normal. In Japan, researchers are developing an e-skin, a crossover medical device and fitness monitor. This ultra-thin, lightweight wearable can monitor heartbeat and muscle movements.

Digital diagnostics

When it comes to screening and diagnostics, IoT devices are accurate, fast and convenient. Plus, they can operate remotely which reduces travel with a better patient experience. A recent report counted over 1 billion telehealth appointments – and many were diagnostic consultations. Patient data gathering can be time-consuming done manually. IoT is reducing time and effort in gathering biomarkers like body measurement, blood pressure, glucose levels and so on. Consumer devices like smartwatches with oximeters can gather data in real-time, securely, and build a picture over time. Making these tools mainstream and accessible could prevent more serious conditions – and cut the associated human and financial costs. When COVID-19 hit last year, IoT screening took off too. Vodafone launched a simple, efficient solution for screening – the Heat Detection Camera. With thermal imaging and IoT connectivity, it can measure body temperature of up to 100 people per minute. And many smart thermometers pool data to show local health risks by aggregating temperatures and symptoms to understand where illness is spreading in real time.

Diabetes goes data-driven

In England, over 15 million people have a long-term condition which is 25% of the population using 50% of doctors’ appointments and 70% of the total spend. And the NHS spends over £25,000 on diabetes every minute – 10% of its budget treating a preventable disease. Globally, 425 million people are affected, according to the International Diabetes Federation. Connected insulin pens automate dosage by connecting to smartphones. And connected blood glucose monitors inform the millions of people already using diabetes apps. By logging data and daily activities, and sharing with family and healthcare providers, they can personalise treatment. This can reduce costs and impact on healthcare systems. And interventions from diabetes educators can be timelier and more effective due to the complex causal factors of type 2 diabetes.

Optimising spaces and processes

IoT innovations of healthcare estates and spaces are focused on efficient, optimised and automated usage. Savings can be quickly achieved with Vodafone’s IoT platform, a ‘plug and play’ (Software-as-a-Service) model. So, it simplifies IoT complexity by working with existing infrastructure. Through a dashboard, the platform makes building and facilities management smarter. For example, occupancy sensors that inform how much cleaning specific spaces require. It automates heating, lighting and cooling. It’s also been used during the pandemic to ensure vaccines are kept at the right temperature and personal protective equipment (PPE) is washed correctly and reused to its maximum lifespan. And sensors on medical devices have proved critical in their care and maintenance by optimising performance and even predicting failure.

Sustainability and trust

Common questions about 5G and connected devices are around the costs of energy and data. The good news is that IoT devices can be highly energy- and data-efficient. And 5G networks transport data at a fraction of the cost and carbon footprint than 4G. At Vodafone, while our network traffic is up 1,000% over five years, operating costs have remained flat. As well as proving the sustainability of the technology, healthcare providers and players must value trust. More devices mean more patient data. So, every organisation needs to be transparent about how they use, store and process data. Only through a ‘trust contract’ backed by better security can connected healthcare flourish – responsibly, sustainably, efficiently and effectively.

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