Tech for Good: IoT can extend healthcare into the home

iot healthcare

As part of a regular series powered by IBM, BetaKit interviews Canadian tech leaders using innovation for the greater good.


Within the Canadian healthcare system, one of the biggest causes of skyrocketing costs is people staying in hospitals and care facilities. While this is sometimes necessary for intensive care, in many cases, patients stay in a hospital simply because they need monitoring, and there is no effective way to do that outside of medical facilities or expensive in-home care.

Michael Martin, a lifelong technologist, works in IBM Canada’s Internet of Things (IoT) practice. His aim is to extend healthcare to the home, giving patients freedom and control over their medical care while empowering medical professionals with high quality data to provide better care.

The right IoT healthcare tech is already here

The term IoT often conjures images of completely new, omnipresent technologies designed to revolutionize the world. Martin doesn’t dispute its revolutionary potential, but sees the term ‘IoT’ as a new buzzword for a well-known and proven way of thinking.

“In a healthcare context, IoT is about increasing situational awareness.”
 

“In a healthcare context, IoT is about increasing situational awareness and the ability to make better decisions, faster,” Martin said. “It operates in the background, collecting little bits of data shared in the cloud. That data offers extended connectivity for medical professionals, and eventually, predictive hyper-personalized health suggestions.”

Many would benefit from this kind of tracking. The closest thing to this kind of tracking currently available is full-time, round the clock personal care or living in a controlled environment like a care facility. In either case, the care provided is rarely predictive and almost always removes autonomy from the patient, lowering quality of life. A home environment with properly connected sensors, on the other hand, returns that autonomy.

Martin gave the example of someone needing to regularly share blood-oxygen levels with their doctor, traditionally an in-hospital task. Retail technology has grown to a point where the sensor itself can be relatively cheaply acquired. From there, a bluetooth connection, for example, sends data to the doctor through an individual’s WiFi connection. All the data is saved on an app, which allows information to be shared at the patient’s discretion with other healthcare professionals.

Privacy and compliance concerns make this a more arduous task than simply building an app. The example, however, illustrates not only how impactful IoT can be for someone’s health, but also how commonplace the underpinning technology already is.

The Canadian context for IoT healthcare

Martin said that one of the biggest obstacles for new medical technologies in Canada is the structure of our healthcare system. Healthcare is provincially administered, but based in a federal mandate requiring uniformity for every Canadian citizen.

Within this system, even though doctors are trusted for their individual judgements and knowledge sharing, technology has to be uniformly implemented and secure in order to achieve compliance. This compliance standard, explained Martin, is one of the biggest factors contributing to the necessity of walled-off environments like hospitals or care facilities, and the growing expense of private, full-time medical help.

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Canada’s federal mandate, however, could also be one of the country’s biggest strengths when it comes to IoT and machine learning-based care data. With IoT and machine learning, the implementation is uniform but the impact is custom.

For instance, the same sensors can be installed regardless of geography or patient age. Whereas old technologies would then run identically in every home, IoT sensors would only pick up the data that is unique to the home they are in. Further, machine learning algorithms are universally implemented, but augmented to understand an individual’s pattern.

This shift in how technology operates fits with how provincial governments administer healthcare, meaning a win for both compliance regulators and for patients.

Preventative medicine with IoT and AI

The ultimate goal for Martin and IBM’s IoT healthcare focus is patient-centred medical care, and recent patient research signals they overwhelmingly want to live at home.

“In published research, a patient’s desire to stay at home is stronger than any concerns about technology,” Martin said. “If you are forced to move into a full-care facility, there is often a feeling of ‘I’m never coming out of here’, which can be devastating for the elderly.”

Martin also noted that medical technology for assisted living does not necessarily mean invasive wires hooked up everywhere. New tools can sit in the background and be configured without a computer science degree.

“You get to interact with doctors at a higher level when you have all the information.”
 

“Patients wouldn’t have to interact with the technology. It can be hooked up to other things like door locks, motion sensors, energy consumption, light sensors, et cetera,” Martin said. “That way, family can know more about their loved ones and doctors can ensure that patients are following a typical routine. Patients can also use other technology to feel more connected, for instance using FaceTime to chat with a nurse or family member.”

Beyond communication and peace of mind, Martin said that machine learning technology hosted on the cloud, when paired with IoT data, has huge preventative medicine potential.

With sensors tracking a patient’s movements and general health, algorithms can detect abnormal trends indicative of illness progression, Martin explained. It can also helps patients see their own data from the cloud, observe trends and patterns, and learn more about their condition from qualified medical sources suggested by these artificial intelligence systems, like IBM’s own Watson cognitive platform. Watson is already heavily used globally for many medical conditions.

“You get to interact with doctors at a higher level when you have all the information, because having it helps you form better questions,” Martin continued.

What’s most exciting for Martin, however, is the power for truly patient-centred medical care that is secure and protected. He believes the power of blockchain is necessary for unlocking that potential.

“Connecting IoT sensors with machine learning algorithms gives personalized data, but there are still security concerns when sharing information between practitioners and facilities,” he said. “With new technology like blockchain, security is strengthened even more.”

The end goal is a connected and empowered patient. Individuals have the comforts of home with the security of knowing they can report their medical conditions to doctors and care staff.

“With technology, we can ‘extend the hospital’,” Martin said. “It won’t just be your home, but you could choose to connect with your entire community, care facilities, and healthcare network.”

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Toronto-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 100 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios or send an email to stefan.palios@gmail.com.