5 things to know about the growing role of IoT in virtual care delivery

The internet of things has the potential to transform the healthcare industry, especially when applied to virtual care and telemedicine. Recently, a group of experts with clinical care delivery, technology and healthcare consulting expertise addressed the topic of the IoT, the potential value this emerging technology can bring to the healthcare landscape, and potential applications and challenges to industry-wide adoption, during a panel discussion during Becker's Virtual Innovation Summit.

Briefly defined, the IoT is a term that describes how "smart" objects, as opposed to computer access points, are linked together to share data that enables the automation of certain tasks. Specific to healthcare, the IoT could be defined as interplay between bedside monitors, smartwatches and fitness trackers, implanted medical devices and any other object that transmits or receives a signal containing data that must be accessed or stored somewhere else.

Trends show the use of IoT in healthcare is on the rise, with use cases emerging in areas such as telemedicine and virtual/home care. While IoT-based healthcare solutions may not currently exist within many hospitals and health systems, there are several forces pushing IoT to the forefront, and experts believe it will hit full-scale adoption within the next 10 years, according to the panel discussion.

According to panel member Robin Sarkar, PhD, CIO of Lakeland Health in St. Joseph, Mich., "As a healthcare professional, I would say our progress [with IoT] has been mixed, particularly when benchmarked with retail and banking" "While healthcare is somewhat of a laggard in leveraging IoT, we are making some progress and this is an area with excellent potential in the future. We are poised for exponential growth."

Dr. Sarkar was joined on the panel by Jennifer Esposito, general manager of global health and life sciences of Intel Corp., and Chris Weitz, an IT consultant working with Lenovo Health.

Here are five key takeaways from the panel discussion.

1. The data explosion created by medical devices — and the ability of hospitals to finally digest this data — is driving demand. The panelists discussed how hospitals and health systems are beginning to employ the tools necessary to analyze data harnessed from devices like MRIs for insights to improve clinical care delivery, and this has opened the door for new possibilities and other applications of IoT technology. "Now that existing clinical care data is being utilized and new analytics methods are being deployed by healthcare organizations, it's opening up the opportunity to ask new and different questions and capture other types data that might be collected — whether it's in the hospital, in the home or on the patient — and incorporating this into clinical decision systems," Ms. Esposito said.

Dr. Sarkar gave the example of an IoT initiative in his hospital where bedside monitors and vital sign devices are connected to the EHR and feed data into a secure, interactive "dashboard" screen where physicians and nurses can remotely monitor patients. If there is a concern with one of the patients, the clinician can simply touch the patient room on the screen and get a view of patient vitals, diagnosis, medications, lab results and other information. Now his system is looking for ways to do this remotely — when patients are in their homes.

2. Patient expectations are also accelerating the introduction of IoT. There is also a considerable amount of data being generated by patients themselves, and due to advancements in other industries, patients expect this information to be seamlessly integrated into their care. "People have an expectation now of how things work. They have been trained by companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook. They expect all things to be integrated," Mr. Weitz said.

3. However, the industry is still at least 10 years away from full market saturation, according to Mr. Weitz. "Things always take longer than you think, but they always end up bigger than you think," he said, quoting a Silicon Valley adage. He predicted healthcare is about three to five years away from mid-level IoT adoption. The next few years will be marked with experimentation and "vendors jockeying off each other for market share and the use of tools and technology," he said. A decade down the line, he expects IoT and virtual care to be "part of the fabric" of healthcare delivery. "It will fade into the background like any widely adopted technology," he said.

However, the early adopters of IoT in virtual care may be surprising, Ms. Esposito noted. She has found an emerging market for IoT in places where access to providers is scarce or market forces are shifting care outside of the hospital. Providers who have the need and desire to use telemedicine and virtual home care are adopting the technology at a faster pace than expected.  

4. Barriers to adoption include culture, security, trust and interoperability. Panelists discussed the barriers that are keeping other providers from embracing digital transformation. Ms. Esposito discussed clinician engagement as a key issue. It's important to discuss how new IoT-generated data can be incorporated into clinical workflows and how these workflow might need to change, she noted. There is also a need for culture change and for clinicians to feel the data generated is actionable from a clinical perspective, so it's important to involve them the decision making process.

Another top issue is security — not only ensuring the information is collected and stored securely, but also that it is available and accessible when needed. Ensuring availability and uptime includes creating a back-up plan in case the devices fail or some sort of outage occurs, according to Ms. Esposito.

Similarly, panelists discussed how trust is a concern for some patient populations. For example, baby boomer patients tend to be more concerned about providing a lot of personal information. "Consumers of healthcare are not fully comfortable from a privacy perspective trusting us with all of their information," Dr. Sarkar said.

Mr. Weitz also highlighted the challenge of interoperability, though he expects this issue to fade in the next five years or so. Integration of digital technology across the health system has been difficult, he said, but the problem is solvable. "It's a normal hurdle to jump over and there is steady progression up the hill," Mr. Weitz said.

5. IoT technology can help physicians carve out more face-to-face time with patients. While virtual care and IoT technology directly reduce physician-patient face time, they do create the time and space to heighten emotional connections in other ways, according to Ms. Esposito. The technology allows less severe patients or those with less complex, easier-to-diagnose conditions be addressed by non-physician caregivers, or allows physicians to reduce the time spent on those cases. This efficiency frees up time for the physician to really make connections in person and spend time with the most complex patients. "An interesting way to think about this is it may actually free up the time of physicians and specialists to really focus in on the patients that need them most," Ms. Esposito said.

To watch a recording of the webinar, click here.

To view the webinar's slides, click here.

 

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