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The Internet of Medical Things is just what the doctor ordered

Posted September 1, 2021
Doctor standing in front of digital display that depicts medical data and metrics

Dr. House used to be just the name of the titular character in a medical drama on TV. But today, reality is much more interesting than fiction. Increasingly, medical breakthroughs are taking place outside of hospitals and labs thanks to a growing network of connected technologies. Which means it may soon be time for your actual house to help with medical diagnosis and patient care.

The aforementioned network emerged from the Internet of Things (IoT) and is commonly referred to as the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT). By enabling medical devices, infrastructure and software to communicate through the internet, IoMT facilitates the analysis of seemingly endless new sources of medical data.

In The Great Indoors, a book that analyzes how buildings shape our behavior, health and happiness, author Emily Anthes captures the imagination with a series of examples. There are smart mattresses that can track sleep, heartbeats and breathing; smart pill bottles that alert patients when they miss a dose; there’s even a smart bathtub that measures the activity of a bather’s heart, thereby potentially detecting heart conditions.

Juan Carlos Augusto, professor of computer science at Middlesex University, is quoted in Anthes’ book: “Many things that were thought to be borderline science fiction a few decades ago are starting to hit the market.” And it’s a big market indeed. HealthTech Magazine shared that while the IoMT market was valued at $44.5 billion in 2018, it is expected to grow to $254.2 billion in 2026 — that’s an increase of over 470%.

It’s safe to say that there is great promise for healthcare workers, medical technology (medtech) companies and patients alike. More reliable data could unlock better treatments, better products, reduce the number of appointments and cut the cost of care. But as IoMT grows in prominence, there are new complexities. Successful medtech innovators will need to keep the patient experience in mind.

A favourable prognosis

The IoMT-enabled future is not arriving a moment too soon. In separate reports, Deloitte projected that the share of Canadians over the age of 65 is expected to almost double by 2030, while a similar trend is expected for Americans in at least 20 states by 2025. New technologies have the potential to assist aging populations around the world as they enter their next stage of life with ease and confidence.

Anthes explains that elderly men and women who are rehomed, especially against their will, can experience a host of unwanted symptoms — confusion, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and more. But at the same time, “More than one in four older adults fall every year, and those who spend long periods of time lying on the floor have an especially poor prognosis.” These related problems motivated researchers at the University of Missouri to develop connected sensors that can detect falls. Upon detection, an email with a short video clip is sent automatically to nurses who can quickly see what has happened and determine whether care is required. The success of the initiative has led to the sensors being made available in the marketplace.

IoMT is not just reactive either. There are already connected devices proactively reminding seniors to take their medications and eat regular meals. And for the growing population of people with dementia, devices can send reminders to shut and lock doors, turn off taps and close the windows when rain is in the forecast. Similar applications are being used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to support veterans who have suffered brain injuries.

Though the benefit to vulnerable populations is easy to see, IoMT shows promise for everyone. In a report titled Medtech and the Internet of Medical Things, Deloitte wrote, “The healthcare and life sciences industries are in transition from reactive and largely episodic models of care that are proving increasingly costly and inefficient to operate, to care models that are proactive, digitally-enabled and deliver better value for patients.” The shift is benefitting firms too — according to Goldman Sachs, IoMT will save the healthcare industry $300 billion in the U.S. alone through remote patient monitoring and chronic disease management.

It is important, however, not to conflate the value with the experience. For IoMT to reach its potential, the patient experience must lead the way.

IoMT and the patient experience

Like IoT in general, IoMT introduces new customer care challenges. As the web of connected technologies becomes more complex, it also becomes harder to untangle the problems being experienced by patients. For example, if a sensor isn’t working as expected, will it be clear whether the hardware, software or some other technology on the network is at fault?

Further, will it even be obvious to the patient that things have gone awry? After developing trust in technology that alerts you when your blood pressure has risen, there could be dangerous consequences if the notifications stop coming when they should be. This underlines the importance of predictive support for medtech companies, which involves developing ways to monitor the performance of the medical technology itself, as well as training support agents to recognize red flags and deliver proactive outreach to assist patients.

Indeed, training will be critical for the future of the patient experience. Agents will need to have a deep understanding of their products — how they work and how they interact with other tech — in order to assist patients. To do so requires continuous training programs and a strong library of resources that agents and patients can reference.

Laws that detail patient-privacy provisions, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the U.S., spell out patients’ privacy rights and must be followed stringently by support agents. To better navigate regulations, medical companies need to have robust processes in place to prevent lines blurring between the role of a support agent and that of a healthcare worker.

In terms of security, companies will need to develop strong protocols to protect highly confidential patient data. Beyond introducing security measures like end-to-end encryption and two-factor authentication, medtech brands can overcome patient reticence by being transparent about their security measures and protocols. Make it clear at all patient touchpoints that security is paramount.

It’s an exciting future, but not one without new technical and ethical challenges for innovative medtechs. Augusto sums it up nicely, stating that IoMT “should ‘actively benefit’ users, be designed around what they actually want and need, respect their autonomy, and dignity, and be accessible, affordable, and useable to people of all backgrounds and abilities.” For brands eager to get things right, there is real benefit in partnering with a company that understands industry regulations, technology and patient support best practices. To connect with TELUS International digital CX and healthcare expertise, click here.

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