Today’s technology landscape is defined by the convergence of the Cloud, Big Data, new software platforms, and smart devices. Together, they form a web of connections that determine the amount of data that we collect and the way we use it. For healthcare, this web of connections requires a sophisticated operating system to maximize its output, namely, cellular connectivity. According to Market Watch, global investment in Internet of Things (IoT) from the medical industry should reach $410 billion by 2022, and much of this investment will come directly from cellular IoT markets. Cellular connectivity can improve operational efficiency, enhance security, and push healthcare towards a more preventive model by better supporting IoT connected medical devices.
Improving Operational Efficiency
When quick diagnosis and early intervention are at stake, speed becomes paramount from an administrative and workflow perspective. 4G LTE networks are currently the fastest networks available, but the emerging 5G network promises to significantly trump the former’s speed. To put it in perspective, if it takes you about an hour to download a short HD movie on a 4G LTE network, it would take you a matter of seconds to download the same movie on a 5G network. The current lure of a mobile 5G network is potent, with both Verizon and AT&T promising to roll out the network in 2018. Currently, both 4G LTE and 5G networks make it possible to link an entire medical center across one cellular network, and to connect thousands of devices across one network without loss of data. So, while a Wi-Fi network can result in strained servers and create delays in transmitting data, a cellular connection can support a larger number of devices, allowing hundreds of users to access the network without experiencing any lag.
The advent of the 5G network is particularly exciting for remote surgery. While remote surgery performed with devices like the da Vinci robot allows surgeons to deftly manipulate robotic limbs with high precision and minimal invasion, only relatively simple procedures can be performed with these means because of limitations in network bandwidth and speed. Current remote surgical procedures are restricted to hospital environments or locations where wired or highspeed Wi-Fi connectivity and network bandwidth are non-issues. The higher speeds of 5G networks could enable more complex procedures entirely facilitated by cellular connectivity and performed in more remote locations.
Cellular networks have enhanced security features and are not as vulnerable to hacking and viruses as traditional Wi-Fi. This is particularly critical for healthcare, because providers may have to transmit and store protected health information (PHI) and personally identifiable information (PII) on the Cloud. Using a virtual private network (VPN) over the cellular connection allows users to beef up security even more, creating a secure tunnel for data to pass through.
Another facet of security that cellular networks can provide for healthcare comes in the form of asset tracking. Hospitals and clinics face a daily loss of inventory – from controlled substances to medical equipment – and this presents a threat to the integrity of care. The Wall Street Journal reports that many hospitals are turning to IoT-assisted tracking systems to save money on lost or misplaced medications. Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, for example, estimates that a medication-tracking system unit can save the hospital $600,000 a year just in time lost when pharmacists, technicians, and nurses are looking for misplaced medications. IoT-assisted tracking systems can allow medical staff to access inventories online and track them in real-time. Asset tracking can also help hospitals and clinics develop a more economical approach to supplies. For instance, smart cabinets that automatically monitor a medical supply’s inventory can alert hospitals when certain medications are running low in supply, as well as help hospitals avoid over-stocking on medications that are rarely used.
IoT Connected Medical Devices
What distinguishes the 5G network from its predecessors, especially where added value to healthcare is concerned, lies in its enhanced capacity to support IoT connected medical devices. 5G contains a computing model that pulls insights from data with billions of devices. A recent report written by the Haas School of Business, U.C. Berkeley, takes a focused look at this distinction. According to the authors, “the phrase that most pithily captures the impact of 5G within the healthcare sector is the ‘personalization of healthcare.’” They go on to explain that “…the much greater ability to continuously gather patient-specific data and the ability to process, analyze and quickly return processed information and recommended courses of action to the patient will give patients greater ability to manage conditions on their own.” For example, a real-time, high-precision mobile cardiac telemetry solution could monitor a patient’s ECG in near real-time, constantly analyzing and collecting data on the device and periodically uploading to the cloud via embedded cellular technology. In the past, patient data from cardiac monitoring solutions were not reviewed in near-real time, resulting in potentially life-threatening delays. These solutions can provide immediate, validated clinical data that aids in the diagnosis of cardiac arrhythmias.
In effect, 5G networks will better support continuous monitoring and enable patients to better manage their chronic conditions, while simultaneously catalyzing the move towards a preventive healthcare system.
Cellular connectivity allows data from devices to be collected and made available to physicians and caretakers remotely and in real-time. Patient health data can be stored securely in the cloud to prevent loss and allow physicians to access individual data as well as conduct population-wide analytics. Connectivity can also be achieved through wireless connections to smartphones or tablets, enabling smaller, easier to use devices by simplifying user interfaces and allowing patients to be monitored from home. Philips’ medication dispensing service, created for elderly people, is a device that alerts patients when it’s time to take their pills. After a button is pushed by the patient, pre-filled cups with medication are dispensed. The dispenser is remotely monitored via cellular IoT, so if a patient misses a dose, the dispenser automatically places an alert call to a physician or caregiver in charge. This successful medical device powered by cellular connectivity is another example of how automated treatment devices can improve the quality of life for chronic patients and help doctors control medication adherence. Connected devices can also integrate with other medical devices to enhance treatment or assist in diagnosis.
Cellular connectivity is pioneering a new healthcare delivery model, one that is faster, safer, and conducive to remote patient monitoring. For IoT connected medical devices, cellular connectivity enhances versatility, portability and usability. With the impending implementation of the 5G network, healthcare providers and patients alike will more readily reap the benefits of a cellular connection. Security issues continue to pose a threat for the IoT, but both technology manufacturers and healthcare providers can take definitive steps to mitigate risks. Cellular connectivity is propelling healthcare into the echelons of modernity – and everyone stands to benefit.