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Healthcare and IoT: Balancing patient privacy, innovation and customer service

Posted December 13, 2017
Healthcare Devices

How do you provide customer support to someone who has ingested a tiny health-monitoring sensor? How do you reboot an internet-connected pacemaker that has lost its WiFi signal? How can a company making consumer-facing connected medical technology navigate the complex maze of patient-privacy laws while still delivering top-notch customer service?

These are questions more and more companies are facing as the popularity of connected medical devices explodes. According to a report by Markets and Markets, the global medical and healthcare-related Internet of Things (IoT) market is expected to grow from $41.2 billion in 2017 to $158.1 billion by 2022.

Delivering patient care and customer service in a hyperconnected era is complicated — but it can be done successfully.

The case for connected medical technology

One of the primary reasons IoT is seen as a tentative savior in the medical community is because it enables the kind of preventive healthcare and remote monitoring that has never been possible before.

Significant benefits are already emerging, says David Wattling, vice-president and chief corporate development officer at TELUS Health, a firm dedicated to providing support and technology for healthcare-related companies and services (disclosure: TELUS International shares the same parent company, TELUS Corporation, as TELUS Health). As an example, the TEC4Home health-monitoring initiative in British Columbia (a public-private partnership between the provincial government, Canadian research institutes and TELUS Health) has yielded impressive results.

Post-heart failure patients participating in the program are asked to provide daily health metrics using a dedicated touchscreen tablet, a blood-pressure cuff, weight scale and pulse oximeter. Remote medical staff are alerted if and when an anomaly arises — for instance, if someone’s heart rate suddenly spikes. The care team can then phone, message or video-conference a patient to rapidly address the problem.

Wattling says the program has saved thousands of dollars per patient in the 90 days following heart failure. “We’ve seen reduction in emergency visits, we’ve seen reduced length of stay in hospital — so, the patient can be discharged earlier, and we’ve seen nurse productivity increase,” says Wattling.

After the monitoring period, patients also reported being more self-aware and proactive in the handling of their own health.

Providing healthcare support to connected patients

There’s no doubt that more complex products require more skilled customer service agents. Contact centers handling IoT products — especially medical IoT — will need to have a deep knowledge and understanding of how the products work, as well as what level of service is permitted under privacy laws. This means companies and contact centers will have to take great care to develop continuous employee-training programs.

In many cases, navigating this relationship also requires setting extremely clear boundaries between companies, governments and patients about who handles what information, says Wattling. He notes a clear division of labor in handling healthcare-related customer service; the contact center addresses product-related issues while a dedicated medical-care team — usually composed of local nurses and doctors — handles everything else.

Despite the increased contact center complexities, patients should only have one number to call for support, which should be quickly routed to the appropriate team. That isn’t to say some patients won’t volunteer sensitive health data to any and all contact center staff. But to that end, the onus is on the part of the care team and the contact center to continually reiterate the limits of their support.

Medical IoT innovation and security

There are an unfathomable number of connected medical devices on the market today; all it takes is imagination and capital to make a new product.

Fitbit, the maker of an extremely popular suite of wearable devices that monitor sleep, heart rate and activity levels, was created by two people from outside of the medical community. The 2011 arrival of its first product helped revolutionize the wearables market, easing consumers into the idea that exchanging certain information for perceived health benefits had value.

Still, most — if not all — IoT devices are in some way vulnerable to privacy breaches. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration concluded that an implantable cardiac device made by St. Jude Medical could be hacked to deplete the battery or deliver incorrect pacing and shocks.

That danger to life and safety is “the ultimate risk,” says Ed Cabrera, vice-president of cybersecurity strategy at multinational technology firm Trend Micro, making it critical for companies delivering medical IoT products to promote the safety and security of the devices and ensure the stringent training and vetting of agents.

Legal and ethical considerations of medical IoT

There are laws around the world with detailed patient-privacy provisions, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the United States and the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation, which spell out patients’ and companies’ rights and obligations when it comes to data privacy.

Consumer privacy, especially in the medical device field, should be automatic for any kind of device, says Cabrera of Trend Micro. But because of jurisdictional divisions in the realms of healthcare, privacy and technology, many parts of the world still have a patchwork of laws rather than a cohesive strategy to address data privacy in the connected era.

With the absence of consistent regulation, the direct-to-consumer health IoT market remains something of an experiment in privacy, chiefly because anyone is free to purchase off-the-shelf devices, often agreeing to terms and conditions that could compromise the confidentiality of their data. As a result, prudent companies are developing more stringent privacy rules for themselves while they wait for official regulations. “It’s a shared responsibility,” says Cabrera. “It’ll be incumbent on us to do the right thing.”

Providing quality care, excellent customer service while honoring data privacy in the medical IoT market is complicated, but not impossible. Fortunately, the contact center can serve as an innovative meeting point, bridging internal and external teams to provide holistic, personalized care to connected healthcare customers.

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