The 21st century has seen the continued rise of “smart” devices. Within two short decades the Internet of Things (IoT) has become embedded into virtually every facet of global culture — both at the individual level and throughout various industrial sectors, leading to the emergence of the concept of Industry 4.0.
The continued evolution of the devices themselves is the result of phenomenal technological innovation surpassed only by the powerful digital innovations that put the “smart” in the device. We could be here all day discussing the complexities of this digital revolution, but, in its simplest form it is the software and data management tools that drive the smart devices and harness their power for the user(s).
Here I want to focus in on a real and positive development of smart devices, specifically in the healthcare sector, where the development of smart and connected medical devices is proliferating. The vast majority of these devices are still to be found within a clinical setting and are making diagnostics and treatment more efficient and streamlined. Furthermore, a small and growing subset of this type of smart device is emerging that is allowing patients to take responsibility for their own care and treatment, namely self-care medical devices.
It is perhaps not so much of a surprise when one considers the parallel emergence of wearable technology (FitBits, smart watches etc.) and the explosion of smart phones and their ever-increasing capabilities supplemented by myriad health and well-being apps that are freely available regardless of operating systems. These factors, coupled with the wealth of health information that can be easily accessed online are contributing to greater self-awareness when it comes to individual healthcare and personal responsibility.
Today there are a number of simple, non-invasive smart medical devices commonly available on the market that are seeing increased market penetration. Devices such as pulse oximeters, which measure heart rate and blood oxygen levels, have seen a particularly high spike in sales(1) during the past 5 months as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic. They are a useful tool for many conditions, and can digitally report the results to healthcare providers, although there is some debate as to their usefulness regarding Coronavirus.
Another widely available device is blood sugar level meters for people with diabetes, which can monitor blood sugar levels and raise the alarm when they go too high or too low allowing users to respond with the appropriate treatment.
In terms of functionality, these devices are about measuring and monitoring various vital signs of the user, providing warnings when levels become too high or too low and, in some cases, providing the data to professional healthcare professionals through digital channels.
Less common, but increasing in numbers are even higher functioning smart medical devices that can support actual treatment outside of the hospital / clinical environment. These are typically being used by patients with chronic diseases and are being developed by medical device manufacturers to manage the dosing and administering of drugs. These devices can digitally and physically support patients with specific drug treatments remote from clinical environments utilizing wearable devices that monitor activity and vital signs and dispense the drugs accordingly. All of this data can be tracked, stored and monitored by relevant healthcare professionals who can make any required adjustments to dosage remotely with digital or online consultation.
In terms of technological innovation, the miniaturization of such smart medical devices has been a key driver in keeping them discrete for the user. Similarly, improved user interfaces have also been vital ensuring they are intuitive and easy to use, particularly for older generations of patients.
These developments are having a significant effect on the nature of healthcare and points to a future of increased self-care with less disruptive clinical intervention while maintaining the required expert intervention when necessary. This can bring many advantages including driving down costs – which inevitably will be considerably lower at home than in a hospital. Beyond that, though, many people will prefer the autonomy of self-care, with expert oversight. The flexibility that this affords their lifestyle can be a liberating factor even considering the condition they are dealing with.
One other factor to consider is compliance. This, as always, is a path that needs to be navigated with care both by medical device manufacturers and insurance companies, the latter of which focuses on paying for positive outcomes rather than treatments. Therefore, the ability to take the right medicine, at the correct dosage and at the right time with smart devices outside of an expensive clinical environment is a positive development.
I am convinced that smart medical devices will continue to enable self-care of patients including monitoring and treatment of a wide range of conditions, including cancer, heart disease and degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Just as importantly I believe they will also make a significant contribution to awareness and the prevention of conditions reaching chronic levels by encouraging personal wellness as adoption increases. Personal lifestyle choices, as well as costs, will be significant factors in adoption rates.
We would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What other advancements have been made in remote health monitoring? Are there any unforeseen perils with this type of approach?
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