Medical IoT Showing Signs Of Life

Market growth is expected to be strong, but development cycle is slow.


Mention the Internet of Things and many people think of fitness trackers on their wrists, or an Internet-connected thermostat at home. IoT technology, however, is also extending into the world of clinics, doctors’ offices, and hospitals.

Healthcare System Network as a Digital Technology Concept

Research and Markets is calling it the Internet of Healthcare Technology, bringing together IoT applications, services, and technologies. Electronic healthcare records, also known as electronic medical records, will be a key element of the IoHT, with real-time health systems drawing on big-data analytics processes and tools to help in diagnoses and treatments, according to the market research firm, which sees cost savings and improved service emanating from the use of IoT in health care.

Grand View Research forecasts the worldwide health-care IoT market will hit almost $410 billion by 2022. IBM’s Watson artificial-intelligence platform is being used in clinical trial matching, drug discovery, and oncology, the market research firm notes. Radio-frequency identification tags will be implemented for asset tracking and transportation, medication management, and development of “smart beds” and “smart pills,” according to Grand View.

Technavio looks for the global IoT market in healthcare to enjoy a compound annual growth rate of more than 36% through 2020. “IoT-enabled healthcare devices such as wearable and home health monitoring devices are interactive and informative, thus helping patients in their ongoing diagnosis and treatment. These devices transmit vital medical data of patients from home to hospital staffs for real-time monitoring,” Amit Sharma of Technavio said in a statement.

Whatever the actual number, it is certain to be big. Medical devices represented more than half of the health-care IoT market last year, according to Technavio.

“Companies now offer solutions through cloud-based platforms that enable wireless storage, transfer, and display of clinical data. This platform also ensures interoperability of these systems with a variety of medical devices and apps,” Amit noted.

Pinpointing opportunities
Chris Rowen, Cadence Fellow and chief technology officer of the IP Group at Cadence Design Systems, sees impressive opportunity in medical IoT applications. But where exactly those opportunities will be, and which devices will play there, is not obvious.

“One thing which is very clear is that the range of roles for new electronics in medical is very broad,” he says. “What’s a fitness band? Well, a fitness band is very close to being a health monitor. It differs only in the amount and reliability of data that’s being collected. A lot of what’s happening in the evolution of fitness bands takes them creeping closer and closer to being medical devices. On the other hand, you also have all kinds of new, advanced applications that will take advantage of some of these new developments—for example, in artificial intelligence and convolutional neural networks to understand more of what’s going on in a health-care setting. That could be a senior at home alone, or it could be monitoring what’s going in an emergency room, or an operating room, or a hospital room.”

The key here is slicing up functionality in intelligent ways. “All of these technologies to make sense out of very complicated, ambiguous situations, and being able to provide early warning and quicker and better care are going to be pretty interesting applications. It will take a while for them to evolve simply because the situations are complex and we need to know how to develop a program, or train, these new kinds of systems to do things.”

That can include ingestible or injectible devices, as well, he noted, which is the modern-day version of Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage. Devices can now be made small enough to report on critical conditions from within the bloodstream.

Rowen says, “The interesting technologies are number one, there’s all these new kinds of sensors. And all kinds of interesting different things you’re going to get from sensing in audio, ultrasound bands, visual sensors, chemical sensors, in-situ biological sensors, that will bring us more data to analyze, reduce, capture, and – where appropriate – share.

“Secondly, the analytical techniques have moved on a lot. The particular excitement around IoT is the idea you’re going to be able to gather data on an individual that tells you something about what that individual is doing, but equally important, gather information about populations, and to be able to put individual data in the context of large amounts of population data to really understand what is going on in the biology of this person versus another, and how do we actually line up the situation for an individual relative to the appropriate subpopulation of folks. Who else’s medical history should we comparing somebody to? So, you have this opportunity, with the caveat around privacy questions, of being able to do medical studies continuously in real time and be able to respond as more and more data-gathering devices give us more and more insight into what’s going on in large populations.”

Privacy plays a key role in this, and Rowen points to a generational divide. Younger adults are generally more willing to share their personal data, while older people could be cautious about what happens with their health data.

So does safety. There is also concern about having sufficient government regulation, particularly by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in particular. “You really have to know that those [devices] are going to be safe and reliable,” Rowen says. He cites the example of cardiac pacemakers, which can run on small, low-power batteries for years and have been refined over decades of research and trials.

Manas Saksena, senior director of technology and product marketing for the IoT business unit of Marvell Technology Group, says medical IoT represents “the things end of IoT.” Marvell is “more organized around products and technologies” that customers can use, rather than creating its own IoT products for health care, such as the Moby MED medical tablet computer that the company introduced in 2010; it no longer markets that tablet. So Marvell is more likely to say to medical IoT developers, “Here’s the platform, the silicon, the software” needed for IoT products in health care.

Nonetheless, the company is watching this market unfold from a supplier perspective. Philips, for example, developed a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. It worked with Marvell to add Wi-Fi connectivity to the device so that data can be sent to the computing cloud for processing and analysis, according to Saksena.

But this market tends to move more slowly than proponents would like. Government regulation of medical devices adds “a long cycle” to the product development process, he notes. With its IoT platform for developers, Marvell is providing ease of use and lower costs for medical IoT products and services.

Medical/health-care IoT may not be as newsworthy or sexy as self-driving cars or homes that defend themselves against intruders. But it could save your life someday.

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