With the recent COVID-19 epidemic, healthcare systems worldwide are under intense pressure. Hospitals do not have the capacity to treat all the pathologies as doctors have been mobilized to treat COVID-19 patients and weak and elderly people have been asked to self-isolate to avoid exposure to the virus. However, the need for care doesn’t care about crisis! And if IoT technology can’t eradicate viruses, it can at least help containing it and make healthcare more accessible.
The Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) provides an opportunity to help healthcare professionals access remotely accurate and personalized data about their patients, improve the speed and accuracy of diagnosis and treatments, and monitor their health status in real time. With the help of tools such as tracking devices and sensors, remote patient monitoring (RPM), telemedicine, and connected assistance, individuals are empowered to record their behavior, get online diagnosis and manage their own health more efficiently, without the need for leaving their home. A two-way effectiveness that can dramatically improve the patient outcome.
The usage of the IoT in healthcare has advanced significantly over recent years and the advances in computing and processing power, wireless technology and miniaturization are driving innovation in connected medical device development. Almost 90% of healthcare organizations have already adopted healthcare IoT and the segment is recording one of the highest IoT investment and growth in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Indeed, IoT healthcare solution providers have had to rapidly implement solutions for answering the demand for tracing the origin of the pandemic or deliver quality services for people in confinement, increasing the speed of adoption. Numerous applications, such as heat sensors, telemedicine, inpatient monitoring, medication management, connected imaging, connected health, connected ambulances, along with many others are gaining traction. In an article dated 1st of April 2020, the World Economic Forum states “Our digital infrastructure needs strengthening to deal with the impact of COVID-19 and future public health crises. (…) It is now the moment for countries to fast-track the construction of new digital infrastructure, such as IoT along with AI. (…) A new age digital era has emerged”.
One of the first uses of IoT during the pandemic is tracing its origin: where it started, where the pockets are, and if people are complying with quarantine measures. This information is critical to de-confinement strategies. A combination of IoT sensors and AI can be more powerful and accurate than human reporting, especially in the context of a fast-moving pandemic. Several governments with the help of healthcare specialists have already implemented these new surveillance tools.
Thermal imaging technology has been used in many airports in Asia or Europe to track people with a fever and it is expected that IoT heat sensors will become common at office buildings, restaurants, and other public places. In Italy, such sensors have been mounted on drones. The drone sends the information to an operator who can check a thermal map on his hand-held screen and can also shout down instructions to offenders, telling them to go home. In South Korea, infected citizens are tracked and alerts are being sent to others if they have come into contact with them.
The project is still at its early stage but as we were writing this article, we came across an innovation that Harvard and MIT researchers are developing: a face mask that lights up when sensors detects the coronavirus in saliva. The mask produces a fluorescent signal when a person with the coronavirus breathes, coughs, or sneezes. The virus itself is being detected, rather than its symptoms, thus addressing flaws associated with other screening methods like temperature checks. A second-generation portable, battery-powered reader provides lab-quality results in low-resource environments. If the technology proves successful, it could be a cheaper, quicker, and more sensitive form of detection than traditional diagnostic tests.
IoT can also help in social distancing, in public or private spaces. Sensors can be used to monitor the density in shops or offices. If too many employees and visitors enter the space, an access control system can ring alarms or block access to stop people from entering the building. Pedestrian counters can be found in more than 180 locations throughout Australia. The data provides information to the city councils who can then see the social and economic impact of the crisis. It is also shared with health organizations, or local medical centers to find out where are the optimal locations to set up testing facilities.
Remote patient monitoring (RPM) and telemedicine is instrumental for patients with chronic diseases who need continuous care whilst practicing self-isolation to reduce their exposure to COVID-19. A broad range of wearables, biosensors, and other medical devices, combined with mobile connectivity enable remote health monitoring. Next-generation analytics deliver new insights to healthcare specialists who can detect patterns more easily. Real-time monitoring can also save lives in event of a medical emergency like diabetes, heart failure or asthma attacks.
Another solution to patient self-reporting and in-person clinical monitoring is Smart pills. They have three primary applications: diagnostic imaging, drug delivery, and patient monitoring. Sensors the size of a grain of rice are placed in pills. They send a signal to an external device to ensure proper dosage and usage or data transmission to doctors. Furthermore, they can remind patients to take their prescriptions and even prescribe future medications. Patients can access the information via their smartphone to track their personal performance and improve their habits.
These solutions contribute immensely in reducing the workload and movements of healthcare workers. IoMT can also be used to ensure safety in hospitals as well as managing scarce resources.
Safety is a primary concern in hospitals and health facilities around the globe. How do you protect thousands of patients and workers? How do you manage resources and ensure that enough beds, protective materials and drugs are available? How can you ensure that precious medical hardware such as respirators won’t fail? How can you easily report to government officials hospital capacity?
The fifth area where IoMT can help with the COVID-19 crisis is the tracking, monitoring and predictive maintenance of assets using IoT and RFID. Medical devices and healthcare assets are equipped with trackers that virtually monitor medical hardware and alert hospital staff members at any sign of a problem. Stock levels, healthcare devices and other assets, and (smart) beds are being equipped with similar tracking devices that aggregate and give real-time availability of the material.
Hospitals also benefit from smart building technologies which enable to measure and manage temperature, air regulation, cleanliness, specific environmental controls or security. When an area is deemed as dirty, robots can even perform the cleaning.
The pandemic has changed people and organizations in many ways and provided a new start for digital infrastructure development. New business models are being created to help organizations, health professionals and citizens understand the complexity of a disease and ensure preventive measures. The need for remote patient monitoring and the management of everything from medical supplies to industrial equipment has been proven but IoMT is still facing many challenges:
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