Momentum is building around connected health applications and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), and many believe that, as an emerging sector, it has great potential. It isn't hard to see why the financial benefits of e-health will come from harnessing the existing infrastructure — the Internet — to not only collect information about patients but, ultimately, deliver care exactly where and when it is needed, which will include in the home.
The way technology can help continues evolving, from wearable devices intended to monitor fitness to equipment that can monitor and control chronic and persistent conditions. Importantly, this evolution is unlikely to be as simple as integrating the right technology because, quite rightly, devices intended to provide any form of healthcare come with many conditions and government regulations that must be observed.
Transitioning these challenges is not a new situation for the many thousands of companies that already supply the medical industry, but it could be different for technology companies looking to move into it. Strong partnerships could be the key here, but competition is likely to be equally strong. Innovators with real value to add could become attractive propositions to the incumbents looking to be part of the IoMT.
Fitness for Life
Today, wearable technology is almost synonymous with fitness trackers, devices that enable the wearer to track multiple forms of activity, including sleep. They initially became popular with active people keen to record their workouts, but the advent of smartwatches saw those same features being integrated into devices intended for a broader customer base.
While recording a run or swim may not appeal to everyone, the ability to monitor the number of steps taken in a day or flights of stairs climbed has, it is hoped, encouraged more people to become more active. While that same technology can be applied to monitoring patient activity, its use is tempered with the need to provide a level of accuracy and reliability that will surpass that offered by simple fitness trackers. Without that accuracy, the devices are unlikely to be sanctioned by the relevant government bodies and, without that endorsement, they will not be recognized by insurance companies. That is almost certainly going to be a significant factor in the commercial viability of the IoMT, at least initially.
The transition from fitness tracker to medical monitoring device may incur some challenges, but it seems inevitable. However, the next wave of wearable medical devices is likely to evolve from a different need, with different results.
One thing most wearables have in common today is their dependence on a companion application running on a smartphone. For more serious medical devices, this is unlikely to be acceptable because it represents a potential weak link between the data and the care provided. Instead, we might expect wearable devices to be linked to a more robust home gateway or, in the case of out-of-home monitoring, have a back-haul connection provided by a dedicated cellular modem.
The next phase could see the same devices being used in hospitals as well as in the home, to supplement or even replace larger, more expensive equipment found in hospitals today. This really would provide a seamless level of care, allowing patients to remain under the watchful eye of medical professionals wherever they are, without a physical barrier to that care.
The Changing Face of Healthcare
To have real health benefits, wearable devices will be used to share information about users frequently. This means capturing and relaying data on an almost constant basis. The ability to observe respiratory, heart rate, and blood oxygen levels under a range of conditions and situations — rather than just in a doctor's office — will reveal more about our overall condition.
This will likely happen gradually, starting with sharing data from fitness trackers, for example. As certified devices become available, that data will take on more relevance and, at least initially, these devices will probably be worn by people with conditions that need constant monitoring. As they will be new to the market, they are unlikely to be cost-optimized, so their cost will likely need to be met by insurance policies. However, as volumes ramp up, prices will inevitably fall, which means they will become more accessible.
At this point, it is likely that more people will adopt medical-grade wearable devices for preventative monitoring, including people who are suffering from or managing a long-term or chronic condition, who would instead be interested in maintaining their health through regular and relatively in-depth analysis of their general wellbeing.
When this happens, it will represent an inflection point, when wearable medical-grade devices become the norm, rather than the exception, and everyone starts to benefit from the IoMT.
A Common Platform
While the key to the success of these medical-grade devices involves some significant innovation, there will undoubtedly be many system-level similarities that these devices will share. As these devices are intended to be wearable, they are likely to be powered by rechargeable batteries and to be genuinely portable they must include wireless connectivity and to provide accuracy they must include advanced positioning data capabilities.
Solutions providing all of these functions are available today, such as LTE modules that harness the latest standards; LTE Cat-M1 and NB-IoT. These technologies form part of the 3GPP standard and exist to provide affordable and reliable long-range connectivity for low bandwidth applications such as those found in IoT. Dedicated access to a cellular network could be essential for IoMT devices; those equipped with one of these modems would be able to connect to an LTE network without the need for a smartphone.
Similarly, Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) modules can now be used to provide increasingly accurate positioning information, while the relative position and attitude can be measured using a growing number of micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) sensors that operate in nine axes.
Many standard sensors will be used in wearable devices, like MEMS motion sensors and temperature sensors. There are now also some sensors, such as optical heart rate monitoring, pressure sensors, and other biomedical sensor interfaces, explicitly targeting wearable applications.
As healthcare moves online, there will be demand for more medical professionals to analyze the vast amount of data created by the IoMT. This, alone, represents a new business sector that will generate substantial revenues.
The e-health sector could be one of the earliest large-scale adopters of artificial intelligence, to provide a more cost-effective first-pass analysis of medical data. Using AI to analyze data will also help improve the algorithms through machine learning, creating expert systems that can be accessed when necessary.
While some may fear this vision of the future, others will embrace it. Ultimately it seems inevitable that society must adopt technology to manage an increasingly aging (and still growing) global population.
This article was written by Rudy Ramos, Project Manager for the technical content marketing team at Mouser Electronics, Mansfield, TX. For more information, visit here.