The Apple Watch and Adidas’s plans for including wearable technology in its shoe and clothing lines have been drawing attention recently, as the age of always-accessible information is upon us. In the era of the Internet of Things — when our homes are linked to our smartphones and everything else is linked to a network — it’s still somewhat surprising to realize that entire industries have yet to be transformed by increased connectivity. Until recently, one of those areas was arguably the health field. Yes, files have been switched to online servers for some time now. But it’s only been in the past year or so that the health industry has begun to be revolutionized by the possibilities technology offers.
With an increase in the number of apps and medical devices that patients can use on their own, the challenge becomes providing a way for that information to be shared seamlessly, said Liat Ben-Zur, senior vice president and digital technology leader at Philips. Ben-Zur spoke with The Next Web at SXSW about how the company is attempting to create a platform that could share numerous data points about a person’s health with their doctors.
Health solutions at your fingertips
“Right now, what we’re seeing is there’s a general health care problem on the horizon that we want to be focusing on,” she said in the interview. The aging population in America is seeing an uptick in chronic diseases, Ben-Zur said, and almost 70% of the health care costs in the industry right now are going toward managing those diseases. As patients seek to monitor those, they’re using more apps and devices that monitor diet, blood pressure, weight, and all sorts of data that can help doctors to determine the best course of treatment. And while that allows consumers to take their health into their own hands, much of that data is still scattered and fragmented, because of the framework of how the data is collected.
“All of these different wearables … they’re all sending their information to their own databases, and nothing’s being shared,” Ben-Zur said. Patients might track their biological data over time, but it’s not easily combined with x-rays taken by a specialist, a list of medications they’re currently taking, and the environmental factors like air quality that could also affect their prognosis.
The benefit of all sorts of “smart” technology is that doctors could start to get a better picture of what is actually affecting a patient’s health by looking at a myriad of factors. Some health devices are already HIPAA-compliant for medical use and regulated by the government, Ben-Zur said. Not only is there a potential to collect traditional health data, she added, but there’s a possibility that non-regulated home devices like HVAC systems, refrigerators, and coffee makers could be connected to an open-cloud platform that could provide a wealth of contextual information. If all the devices are truly “smart” and are able to connect to the Internet but also share information, “we can start to actually leverage the benefits of wearables devices, of home monitoring devices.”
So the company, in a partnership with salesforce.com, created HealthSuite, a secure cloud-based platform that aggregates all sorts of health data that is accessible for patients and health care providers. If a patient is wearing a device that transmits their vital sign information to the cloud, a doctor can view that data on an app and monitor the person’s health even when they’re not in the same room. The video above gives an overview of how HealthSuite works.
Philips isn’t the only brand to offer real-time medical collaboration, though the idea is still rather novel. Though perhaps not as comprehensive as Ben-Zur describes as the potential for Philips, drchrono.com offers one-stop health care services with its Electronic Health Record, or EHR, platform. Patients can upload health information, make appointments with their doctors, and receive electronic prescriptions through one website and app. Apple also began offering a Health app with its iOS8 launch in September 2014, which can track all sorts of data such as calories consumed, sleep data, vital signs, and more. Along with that launch, Apple also created HealthKit for app developers, which enables independent fitness apps to share their data with the Health app dashboard. All of that information can be shared with medical professionals, directly through the app.
Security’s role in connected health care
So what’s the catch with all of this seemingly great cooperation? According to Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, it’s security. In her statements at the International Consumer Electronics Show in January 2015, Ramirez said that addressing security issues is paramount to ensure that consumers truly benefit from the Internet of Things. “That data trove will contain a wealth of revealing information that, when patched together, will present a deeply personal and startlingly complete picture of each of us – one that includes details about our financial circumstances, our health, our religious preferences, and our family and friends,” she said. Later in the speech, she elaborated on the specific threat that data breaches have, the probability of which increases with the more connected devices people use. “Moreover, the risks that unauthorized access create intensify as we adopt more and more devices linked to our physical safety, such as our cars, medical care, and homes,” Ramirez said.
The health care industry is particularly at risk in the current digital environment. The Global State of Information Security Survey for 2015, administered by PricewaterhouseCooper, shows that “information security incidents” (read: breaches) jumped 60% in 2014 compared to 2013, and the costs attributed to those incidents increased by 282%. A growing number of health providers are reporting that they are investing more in security, especially at an executive level, according to the study. However, there’s a disconnect in bringing those discussions to a board of directors level.
The potential for adding health care initiatives to the Internet of Things is a huge benefit, because it can allow consumers and doctors to become more proactive, instead of reactive to a current health need. Ben-Zur praised this, as did the Atlantic Council and Intel Security in a report titled, “The Healthcare Internet of Things: Rewards and Risks.” According to a separate Intel Security survey of more than 12,000 adults in 2013, a large majority of people are receptive to using this form of sharing information to improve their health. Of the respondents, 70% of adults said they would be willing to use swallowed monitors, prescription bottle sensors, and even toilet sensors to improve personal care.
How does the field move forward?
With that in mind, it’s likely that the biggest obstacle for widespread use is the potential for data theft. While that might always be a concern with online files, several of the companies are already addressing the issue. Apple’s information is encrypted and drchrono’s data is under HIPAA protections. Philips doesn’t discuss the security details of its HealthSuite, but in every announcement about it, including a press release to publicize the launch, the company emphasizes the platform has built-in security to create a secure cloud environment.
The risks are still present. “Since the IoT is still in its infancy, no one yet knows all the ways this information can be used for malicious purposes,” the Atlantic Council and Intel Security wrote. However, with companies continuing to try to improve their security measures, while also providing new tools to monitor health, it’s likely that the health field will become the next industry reshaped by the Internet of Things.
Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS