How connected devices could revolutionise healthcare

A look at the latest Internet of Things devices looking to make patients’ – and NHS doctors’ – lives much easier

The Internet of Things is simultaneously terribly and brilliantly named. On one hand, it’s too broad and vague to give precise definitions to, but on the other, that’s kind of the point. With sensor prices dropping every month, and ways of communicating crazy amounts of data coming in equally cheap, giving the genre a more specific name would be a disservice: limiting scope in the perfect blue-sky thinking tech environment.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the UK healthcare sector, where IoT innovations are coming thick and fast. I recently attended an IoTUK showcase of some of the brightest inventions in the sector. This covered everything from convenience (baby dummies that give frequent temperature readings) to the life-changing (soles with motors to prevent damaging falls) and even the potentially life-saving (connected traffic cones that detect incoming traffic at night, when workers’ visibility is weaker). Some of them – such as Aiseedo’s connected AI and BeanIoT’s blank canvas of “sensor beans” – put the infrastructure in place, but leave the implementation specifics to the medics.

Idris Jahn, principal consultant for middleware and data interoperability at IoTUK, believes that the sheer variety of interesting health innovations on display demonstrates how well the UK stands against the rest of the world in the sector. “I’ve just come back from Mobile World Congress, and it seems like there are a lot of things going on globally and lots of interest in IoT, but not as much in healthcare and assisted living as there is in the UK. I think we are probably at the forefront of the work that’s going on globally.”

Some conditions seem to be more frequent targets of innovative solutions than others. At the show, I see a pair of shoes demoed that aim to break a common Parkinson’s symptom called “freezing of gait” where the patient feels glued to the floor. By shining a laser from the toe of the shoe with each step, patients are provided with a clear visual cue to break the freeze, and its creators tell me it has showed promising results in preliminary tests at the Donders Institute. This isn’t the first wearable tackling Parkinson’s symptoms I’ve ever heard of – in fact, it’s not even the first to appear on Alphr – which leaves me wondering: are some diseases better funded, or just easier wins?

"Are some diseases better funded, or just easier wins?"

Jahn doesn’t have any figures to answer this, but he has his own theory about why people focus on certain illnesses. “What I have seen is that people are very personal with what they come up with,” he says. “Quite often I hear ‘I created this solution because it was important to me’ – an elderly relative you need to take care of, or a family member with diabetes. These are the kind of stimulus that starts people thinking ‘well, I work in an organisation with this kind of technology, perhaps I can apply it in this field to help my family.’”  

That’s certainly the case with Pacif-i, a consumer-targeted baby dummy that regularly takes timestamped temperatures from the infant via Bluetooth to keep a record of the baby’s response to medication or just the bumps of everyday life. Co-founder Kristen Hancock first came up with the device when finding nothing on the market that did what she wanted. She tells me that the £40 device doesn’t just have to be used when the baby is sick, because of the natural obsolescence of the dummy itself. Experts say the pacifier should be used for six to nine months, while the Pacif-i battery carries on for around a year, neatly sidestepping a big pitfall of many IoT devices.

The problem of regular battery charges only magnifies when the inconvenience of forgetting to plug in can be a matter of life and death, and it’s especially problematic when being used by the vulnerable and elderly. One delegate describes longer battery life as ‘the holy grail of IoT tech’, and it’s easy to understand why.

"Dealing with a publicly funded body like ours has its own unique challenges, especially as the NHS has well-known budgetary issues and every move comes under a great deal of scrutiny."

But we work with the tools we’re given, and at the moment the battery life isn’t increasing significantly. In the UK, disruptive devices face an even bigger hurdle – becoming integrated within the NHS. Dealing with a publicly funded body like ours has its own unique challenges, especially as the NHS has well-known budgetary issues and every move comes under a great deal of scrutiny. Some startups choose consumer-focused products for an easier route to market. “Some organisations are purely working on assisted living, because it’s an easier market to tap into, as you don’t have the complexity of the NHS,” admits Jahn. “On the other hand, the rewards are huge if you do get into the NHS.”

“What we want to do is bring all the communities together, and then provide the medical experts together – the hierarchy within the NHS who know how to introduce small companies into the organisation. As a small business, you might think it’s overwhelming, but we’re slowly trying to give them small steps they can take to penetrate that particular market and bring their great solutions to patients.”

As you might imagine, that isn’t a speedy process, both for bureaucratic and safety reasons. IoTUK tries to help entrepreneurs pass clinical trials as quickly as possible, but as Jahn points out, the pace of change is slow for a reason. “It takes time for particular reasons – you want the product to be safe and do the right things for patients.”

"Patients are consumers – they’re used to a world where they can order a package on the internet and track it to their doorstep. They don’t have that kind of service in healthcare.”

But things can’t be stuck in development forever. In a sense, the pressure for change is coming from the private tech sector and our own expectations as consumers. “There’s a huge demand from the patient side as well,” says Jahn.

“Patients are consumers – they’re used to a world where they can order a package on the internet and track it to their doorstep. They don’t have that kind of service in healthcare,” Jahn adds.

“If you’re diagnosed with a particular illness, most people don’t know what lies ahead – you don’t know who you’re going to see, when you’re going to see them, what drugs you’re going to need to take, what kinds of treatments are available. But if there were some kind of roadmap telling you ‘this is your appointment, this is the medication’, then it gives you more engagement. If you’re engaged as a patient, you’re more likely to recover from the illness that you have.”

“For several generations, healthcare hasn’t changed that much. You still phone up the doctor to get an appointment, you go to the surgery, you sit in the waiting room, you see the doctor for ten minutes, you pick up a prescription and you go home. Surely that’s got to change?”

"One bad breach has the potential to derail huge amounts of medical progress, so how seriously are British IoT developers taking the problem?"

Jahn claims that remote access would save time and space, freeing up the surgery for people with more urgent needs. “The old model of physically going to the surgery is not always the right one – sometimes it is, but we need to give the option to people.”

There is, of course, an elephant in the surgery here. A smallish elephant, for now, but with the potential to grow large enough to disrupt the whole revolution: security. Data breaches large and small have become a fact of everyday life, and while the incentive for hackers targeting healthcare are less obvious than banks, more entry points in an interconnected system weakens everything. One bad breach has the potential to derail huge amounts of medical progress, so how seriously are British IoT developers taking the problem? In the long run it will prove extremely important, says Jahn.

“At the moment, if you steal someone’s bank details, there’s a financial reward at the end of it. But if someone’s wearing a heart monitor and you steal their heartbeat, can you do something with that? Perhaps you can, but I’m willing – this is me personally speaking – to have a system that isn’t 100% secure but allows me to measure my heart.”

“As more systems become integrated – when my personal life signs are integrated with my long-term clinical records, it becomes far more important. I don’t want clinical records to be used by organisations I wouldn’t want. It should be just the people I trust with that information.”

That’s a big deal. Some of the devices on show get around the problem by only storing data locally, but that won’t be a long-term solution when larger institutions get involved. Still, if IoT technology looks like it will help push the frontiers of medicine past what was previously possible, then perhaps there’s just that bit more incentive to ensure that security doesn’t ruin a good thing.

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Images: Alan Martin. Additional images from Lydia, Paul Swansen, and Intel Free Press used under Creative Commons