- A new wave of IoT-connected devices points to a future where many health-related interventions can be accomplished in the home rather than at the clinic.
- Penetration of digital technology in the healthcare sector hasn’t kept up with other industries, but the problem is political rather than technological.
- Tracking individual patient activity is just the start, with aggregated health data promising fresh insights and approaches to healthcare.
It’s enough to consider today’s smartphones to get a feel for the breathtaking pace of digital technology’s rapid advance. However, it seems harder to put a finger on the extent to which these gains are enabling a richer, safer and more pleasant lifestyle.
Paradoxical for some is the relatively slow pace with which digital has infiltrated an industry most people would expect to be one of technology’s most amiable partners: healthcare.
We know that the latest multi-million dollar MRIs and micro-surgical robots evidence one aspect of technology’s impressive forefront, but when it comes to devices accessible to the consumer, most would be hard pressed to mention anything beyond the Fitbit, and that’s almost ten years old.
Even smartwatches don’t yet seem to fit into our lives in a sufficiently compelling way to generate much excitement.
The problem isn’t with the technology per se, but rather with the healthcare industry’s conservatism coupled with a legacy of legal frameworks that have unfortunately stifled most attempts to deliver it into the modern age.
Enter the internet of things
Now, the internet of things (IoT) – the network of electronic devices that are interconnected over the open internet – is kindling advances in the field of digital health.
Slews of interesting products are currently being developed that could dramatically improve the convenience and effectiveness of personal healthcare.
Innovations like electronic pills that track medication compliance, sleep monitors, personal electrocardiogram devices and other standalone digital sensors will have far greater utility now that they’re able to report what they sense in real time.
In addition to dedicated monitoring devices, today’s smartphones typically include a range of environmental sensors that, through software, can be used to measure and report on a range of health factors.
If more specialist sensors are required, they can usually be connected to and monitored via the user’s smartphone, lowering the cost of access.
Further on the horizon, sensors built into garments, hats, shoes, eyewear and so forth point to a future with more sensors than sensibility, raising questions as to what tangible benefits such advancements might bring.
The rise of home-based health
At first, we’re likely to see specialised monitoring devices installed in the homes of people with particular diseases that require oversight. This will allow them to remain at home with the assurance that their vital signs are being monitored remotely, and that help will be promptly dispatched when needed.
In addition, devices like movement sensors would be able to monitor, for example, the aged and infirm. With the help of sophisticated computerised analysis, such a system could quickly identify when a patient’s safety was in jeopardy so that a clinician could attend in person.
Realising the dreams of digital healthcare
Of course, we’re not there yet. Some would say we’re not even close, and that’s a fair assessment.
Part of the reason behind that comes down to the conservative nature of the healthcare industry itself. After all, when you’re responsible for the lives of others, sticking with the tried and true is, understandably, comforting.
So, while the rest of society wants to get a move on capitalising on technology, it helps to understand that, to surmount this problem, we must appreciate the unique needs of healthcare professionals.
For example, without a deep knowledge of the technical workings of a medical sensor, how are clinicians to trust that the data it provides is valid? The only practicable solution is to establish a set of standards for data across the industry.
Other industries have already achieved such a feat, but even now healthcare remains a Tower of Babel. There are 17 mutually incompatible software systems in operation in the retail pharmacy sector alone.
Fortunately, pressure is now mounting to resolve this conundrum, particularly on account of a much more digitally-savvy generation of clinicians now graduating into positions of greater influence.
Australia’s position on digital healthcare
At present, an unwieldy diversity of policies and legislation between states means that, compared with other western countries, Australia is playing catch-up in moving towards cohesive digital healthcare.
Coupled with this, Australia’s relatively small population and healthcare industry that services it means the funding required to effect broad-scale change isn’t easy to acquire, especially when there’s little guarantee that today’s efforts won’t be invalidated by changes to standards and legislation in future.
Building a universal standard for health data
This situation might change dramatically, on account of recent successes in establishing new legislation with the power to circumvent many of the roadblocks for healthcare’s digital transformation.
Advancements include individual health record numbers that are separate from Medicare, a National Health Data Dictionary that defines terminology standards, and we’ve established the Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA) – a national body with support from all states and the federal government that will drive the national agenda for health.
Such improvements build on the success of Australia’s MyHealth record – a snapshot of personal health data that is already in use by 20% of the population. In the next two to three years, MyHealth will be expanded to include information on your most recent hospital discharge, pathology results, medical imaging results, currently prescribed medications, and so on.
In addition, the ADHA’s mandate going forward will be to establish, monitor and if necessary, enforce standards for healthcare software in order to ensure reliable interoperability between systems.
Personal information, global insights
The importance, here, is in creating a framework that will, in future, extract and deliver even greater value by applying big data analytics.
Tracking individual patient activity or treatment compliance is really just the start. To be truly useful, diverse data sets need to be communicated, aggregated and analysed in ways that enable new and more effective action to be taken.
This drives a larger point – that it’s often possible for one technology’s value to be greatly enhanced by embedding it within a more inclusive ecosystem. In this context, the internet of things will open the door to new business models in which the devices themselves aren’t the core value driver; it will be the extraction and presentation of meaningful information from the data they produce.
By ensuring we cater to the legitimate concerns of both the healthcare industry and its consumers, we can look forward to health benefits like fewer visits to clinics, more effective and less intrusive treatment programs, lowered medical costs, and the vivification of a new, healthcare-focused IT industry in this country.
With Australia’s digital healthcare framework well on the way to becoming fully established, a standard of home-based healthcare inconceivable today starts to seem not just potentially, but imminently realisable.