Wireless Medical Technology: The “Why” Is as Important as the “How”

medical-deviceThe Internet of Things (IoT) is taking hold in nearly every aspect of our lives. No longer are we content with simply connecting via a computer or mobile device. These days, our homes are filled with connected devices, all purporting to make our lives easier, more efficient, and in many cases, more entertaining.

However, the IoT’s creep isn’t limited only to our homes. One area where IoT is already taking hold and is expected to grow even more is in the health care industry. Often referred to as Medical IoT (or just connected medical devices), the adoption of connected devices is already at impressive levels and the trend is for even more devices to be accessible via the internet in the future.

For example, it’s not uncommon to find patients using wearable devices to collect and transmit data about their blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen rate to their physicians, or to find wireless devices within hospitals that automatically transmit patient vital signs and other monitoring data straight from the hospital room to hospital staff, no matter their location.  The assumption is that thanks to such continuous monitoring and real-time data, physicians can provide better quality care and improve patient outcomes.

Undoubtedly, the IoT certainly creates a great deal of opportunity within health care to deliver better outcomes. At the same time, though, there is also the question of the true value of connected devices in every circumstance. The fact is, while there is a certain “cool” factor associated with IoT technology, and a sense of wonder at the fact that a device can transmit data wirelessly, there is also a concern that developers will attempt to include connectivity just because they can. Unless the technology aligns with user expectations and behaviors, is reliable, and delivers actual meaningful outcomes — and doesn’t just add an unnecessary feature to the device — it is unlikely to be successful.

Therefore, when developing connected medical technology, it is just as important to consider why you are connecting it as it is to consider how you will connect it. Often, the how isn’t nearly as complicated as one might think, thanks to relatively inexpensive and widely available microcontrollers and applications. The why, on the other hand, is more complex, and requires developers to consider not only the potential benefits of connecting a medical device, but several other key points as well, among them the potential for data overload, the security of the devices, and addressing potential malfunction, to determine whether a device can benefit from connectivity.

Chief Concerns for Connected Medical Devices

While there are plenty of points to consider when developing any type of medical device, when the device is designed to be connected to the internet, there are additional things to think about.

Different Users, Different Priorities. As anyone who owns a wearable device can attest, there are limitations to the data produced. What happens, for example, when a patient forgets to wear their device for part of, or an entire, day? What about charging devices? What about ensuring they are connected to the internet or an application in order to transmit data?

While providers may have certain expectations for the data, the reality is that like any treatment, patients (and their caregivers) are responsible for following through with the instructions. If they fail to do so, then then the data could be incomplete or skewed, leading to additional questions about the treatment. Provider, then, need to develop standards for not only educating patients about the devices, but also for analyzing data in such a way that the margin for error is addressed appropriately.

Data Overload.  Connected devices produce data — a lot of data. In fact, one of providers’ chief complaints about connected devices is the sheer amount of data they produce, but only a small amount of that data is actually meaningful. Connected devices have the potential, and often the tendency, to create reams of data that providers then need to sift through in order to identify, diagnose, and treat specific health issues.

Therefore, rather than devices that collect and transmitting data simply for the sake of doing so, providers want devices that provide clear information that can guide their actions, not something that creates more administrative work that distracts them from patient care. In other words, if a device does not need to collect and transmit data, or if the information collected isn’t immediately actionable or useful, then developers need to consider whether the connectivity is truly necessary.

Security. Security is a hot button issue with the IoT, with some security experts already warning about the potential for hackers to “take over” connected medical devices and wreak havoc on patients. The potential for such an attack has already been seen with October’s massive DDoS attack on internet infrastructure service provider Dyn, which stemmed from IoT devices such as closed circuit television cameras and other digital video recorders.

So far, no such attack has taken place on a medical facility or on medical devices, but there is a legitimate — and growing — concern that cybercriminals will use connected medical devices as a gateway to Dyn-style attacks on larger targets; i.e., hospital patient databases. Medical device developers are working to improve the security of connected devices, but there are challenges, particularly when it comes to meeting HIPAA compliance and FDA requirements for protecting patient confidentiality.

Safety & Reliability. While no one ever wants to think about the possibility of a device malfunction, it is always a concern, especially in health care. Developers must consider the potential ramifications of a device malfunction, and what that means for the delivery of patient care. Are the benefits of connectivity worth the risk of something going wrong? Can the delivery of care continue even with an interruption — and if so, is connectivity even necessary?

Undoubtedly, wireless technology and the IoT have the potential to transform patient care and improve outcomes. Meeting that potential requires careful consideration of some important issues, and exploring why something is going to be connected, because just because something can be connected, doesn’t mean that it should be connected.

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