It seems like every day, another internet-enabled device is changing the way we communicate, entertain ourselves, and perform everyday household tasks. Your refrigerator can remind you that you’re out of milk, an app on your phone will automatically reroute you around a traffic jam, and your thermostat will turn down the heat or AC to save you money while you’re on vacation.
Indeed, the “Internet of Things” is changing how people experience the world around them. And it’s changing how people access healthcare, too. Let’s take a look at how these devices are impacting the way we engage with our health.
Saturday Night Live’s recent send-up of the Amazon Echo is a good example. In the sketch, the show poked fun at an imagined new version of “Alexa”—one designed specifically for the elderly. This digital assistant answers to any name remotely similar to Alexa (Alyssa, Amanda, Odessa), and is “super loud” for those with hearing loss.
All joking aside, Alexa and other digital assistants can be very helpful for seniors and others needing care. As Techcrunch reported, programmers are building apps for digital assistants that set voice reminders to help patients remember when to take their medications, allow family members to monitor care, and reach out to emergency services with easy voice commands.
“Alexa will respond to users’ questions about medication by telling them the name of the medication they need to take, dosage and time of day it needs to be taken. She will then ask if they had already taken the medication. Whether the user answers “yes” or “no,” an email is sent to the family member tracking their care.”
Daily medical needs are just the beginning of how digital assistants can help. They could call an Uber or Lyft to take Grandma to the grocery store, her volunteering gig, or out for dinner with friends. Not only would this make it convenient for seniors to give up their car keys, but it would also help combat the isolation many home-bound people feel.
Fitness watches and trackers are another great example of the Internet of Things’ effect on healthcare. Individuals and employers are both drawn to fitness wearables as a means of encouraging exercise, tracking biometrics, and gathering data on health.
Fitness trackers fall into the category of “wearables,” which includes smart watches and entertainment devices as well. However, the trend shows that wearables specifically geared towards health are outcompeting others. In 2016, FitBit led the wearables market with 22% market share and 22.5 million devices sold, compared to 10.7 million Apple Watches sold.
Employers are one of the big drivers of this trend. They’re looking for ways to help employees lead healthier, happier lives, and often push wellness programs (complete with fitness trackers) as a means of achieving this. While we find mixed results for wellness initiatives in Artemis customers’ data, wearables do seem to help. According to the Health Enhancement Research Organization, 54% of employees who wore a fitness tracker for a wellness program are still wearing one six months later.
This CNN piece describes a study in which participants wore wearables to track their movements, sleep quality, and brain activity. These employees reported higher job satisfaction (3.5%) and higher productivity (8.5%), but the real value in these devices might lie in the data:
“Some employers could have real-time executive dashboard resource allocation systems that will recommend a CEO assign Chloe to a big pitch meeting that afternoon instead of Peter because Peter is in the midst of a particularly poor productivity cycle and Chloe had way above average sleep quality the night before.”
Digital assistants and wearables are both impacting employee health right now, but what about larger population health? Providers and clinicians are looking to the Internet of Things as a potential solution to patient monitoring. Internet-connected skin sensors, monitors, ingestibles, and wearables can all provide doctors with key data they need to keep track of their patients. Patients are notoriously unreliable at self-reporting their care routines, so real-time cloud-based monitoring could provide doctors with a more accurate picture of a patient’s progress and condition.
Additionally, the data from internet-connected sensors could be invaluable for population health management and chronic disease care. Using this data, clinicians can get a close look at wider trends that can impact clinical models, protocols and treatment strategies. As exciting as the possibilities are, the challenges are equally daunting. As Health IT Analytics reports,
“Standardizing and normalizing that data, especially when it comes from consumer devices that are not necessarily concerned with the ability to interoperate with electronic health records, is one of the biggest obstacles in the way of creating a meaningful IoT for healthcare.”
Some devices might monitor length of sleep, while others can track quality as well. Some wearables are fitted with heart rate monitors, but some function only as step trackers. These differences create mountains of data that can’t quite be compared apples to apples. But at least we have mountains of data!
What Internet of Things devices would you like to see used for healthcare in the next few years? A smart fridge that monitors your calorie intake? An exercise bike that reports your progress to your physical therapist? A coffee mug that tells you when you’re overcaffeinated?