Last week in this column, I examined IoT (Internet of Things) opportunities and hurdles in developing nations. There is no question one of the reoccurring hurdles is infrastructure. For this blog, I will be continuing the discussion by focusing on healthcare. More specifically, mHealth and telehealth solutions are uniquely capable of impacting developing nations and I will address what might be some of the solutions.
The IoT has helped create a new vision for what healthcare can be across the globe. There’s a movement underway toward a more patient-centered approach to healthcare. Connected health devices and systems can help make this a reality. For instance, a connected diabetes management device can collect key data about a patient and transmit that data to caretakers and/or physicians. The ability to monitor patients with chronic diseases, or even after a hospital visit during their everyday lives—and not just when they come in for a checkup or in case of an emergency—can be critical in creating positive patient outcomes.
Health-monitoring solutions, and even health-oriented consumer wearables to some degree, also can go a long way in engaging people in their own healthcare. The technology can encourage a more preventative model of healthcare, versus a largely reactive one. The IoT can also broadens access to healthcare. Telehealth solutions that offer remote visits are a good example.
For patients who don’t have easy access to doctors, but who have access to a mobile device, this technology will certainly be lifesaving. These patients are more likely to keep up with their regular checkups if they can access a doctor from their own homes, which can lead to better health down the road.
Let’s look at some of the numbers. According to Grand View Research, the global mHealth market is expected to reach almost $50 billion by 2020. In many countries, there is a growing aging population, coupled with more incidences of chronic diseases.
These are a couple of factors contributing to mHealth’s projected growth, but it’s not the whole story. Innovation in mobile and connected health will play a role too.
The introduction of new and improved connected medical devices, falling costs of these devices, and a willingness from providers and patients to adopt mHealth solutions will all help the cause.
Adoption in developing nations will also contribute to growth. Anywhere in the world where there is a low penetration of medical practitioners and a substantial rural population, the opportunities for mHealth are ripe.
The global rise of smartphone adoption paired with a lack of centralized healthcare infrastructure is the perfect recipe for mHealth, which can dramatically reduce the cost and reach of healthcare in low-income and middle-income countries.
In some cases, mobile devices can be used to diagnose infectious diseases, such as HIV or tuberculosis. In other cases, devices can monitor and track patient adherence to therapies for a variety of illnesses.
At the end of the day, mobile medical diagnostic tools that are cost effective have the potential to democratize healthcare. Here are just a few specific examples of how the IoT is making or perhaps will make an impact in the developing world.
One solution is from Mobisante, a Redmond, Wash.-based company. Mobisante has developed a smartphone-based ultrasound device that allows healthcare workers to perform ultrasounds on patients like pregnant women to see if their pregnancies are progressing normally.
These ultrasounds can be performed almost anywhere, and the images can be shared via Wi-Fi, cellular, or USB. This type of solution has the potential to bring routine prenatal care to so many women who are off the grid, so to speak.
Another way the IoT is impacting healthcare in emerging nations is through good-ole M2M-enabled cold-chain monitoring. One thing we don’t have to think about too much in the developed world is vaccine spoilage.
In developing countries, however, transporting and storing vaccines safely within the recommended temperature range can be a huge problem, especially in remote and rural areas. Basic M2M sensors can do wonders here, alerting vaccine handlers before a situation gets beyond control and vaccines spoil.
The IoT can also help address issues relating to humanitarian response, according to the ITU (Intl. Telecommunications Union).
In its report, “harnessing the Internet of Things for global development,” the ITU describes a solution called STAMP2, which stands for “sensor technology and analytics to monitor, predict, and protect Ebola patients.”
It’s developed by USAID (United States Agency for Intl. Development). I highlighted this solution briefly last week in my column. The STAMP2 sensor, deployed in Ebola-stricken areas, collects patient data such as ECG, heart rate, oxygen saturation, body temperature, and respiratory rate.
The data is sent to a central server so patients can be monitored and analyzed continuously. Abnormal changes result in an alert being sent to a physician. The sensor is deployed as a connected health patch or “smart band-aid.” The STAMP2 sensor is one example of how the IoT can help improve response initiatives, in part by allowing emergency responders to detect Ebola patients earlier and monitor them more efficiently.
While mHealth devices aren’t supposed to take the place of in-person visits or hospital-grade diagnostic tools, you can see the tremendous potential here for people in areas where medical infrastructure is lacking or simply does not exist … and that leads us to hurdles.
Infrastructure is our focus here, and it’s imperative to build and maintain a secure infrastructure in order to support robust mobile health market growth. A lack of reliable cellular, broadband, and wireless networks limits mHealth capabilities, and this is true in developing nations and in developed nations too.
No matter where in the world we’re talking about, infrastructure is important to so many facets of the IoT, and that certainly includes mHealth and connected healthcare at large.
The potential for mHealth to impact millions of people in the coming years is as astonishing as it is exciting. But it will take some infrastructure investment to realize its full potential.
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