Things happen: Can healthcare IT leaders help create the IoT?

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Jim Utterback, Principal, Witt/Kieffer

When millions of consumers buy Fitbits and download wellness tracking apps for their smartphones, it is clear there is very broad and deep interest in using computers to improve health. And if you are following Apple’s and others’ investments in medical technologies, you know that firms are betting big on this future.

Fitbits, along with more sophisticated and digitally connected insulin pumps, implantable cardio defibrillators, home health monitoring devices, and fetal monitors are just a few indicators signaling the significance of the Internet of Things (IoT) in healthcare practice.

These things sense and collect data from their immediate surroundings – including from patients themselves – and share that data with other things. They trigger specified actions for specific circumstances. All this activity happens automatically in the IoT, and the prospective benefits are considerable.

Among the applications cited by John Glazer in HH&N Magazine are sensors to measure and track blood pressure remotely. Estimates have shown a remarkable 64 percent drop in readmissions for patients whose blood pressure and oxygen saturation levels were monitored in this way. Without a doubt, this and other smart technologies are changing the landscape for healthcare organizations.

Opportunity for IT leaders to drive change

All eyes are on healthcare IT leaders. They are in a position to figure out how to build, bridge, or utilize devices to capture longitudinal data (over time), and report data automatically over a secure connection. They can use these data sets to report meaningful information that can be integrated into the business.

But first, these leaders must tackle the issue of analytics and IoT, and to do that they need to negotiate hurdles in the way involving security, standards, structure, deployment, usage, and ownership.

More specifically:

  • If devices seldom go off, can healthcare providers or payers gather enough data to react to customer (patient) and user (clinical staff) demand in real time?
  • Within medical centers, seamless connectivity will be required across departments and units— will organizational silos block the effectiveness of IoT?
  • How will healthcare organizations collect, analyze, and store the data from these emerging architectures? Is there sufficient bandwidth? Will it be outsourced/insourced?
  • What about cybersecurity? With every device, there is a new access point, and that’s already an industry sore point. The Workgroup for Electronic Data Interchange counts approximately 37 million healthcare records compromised in data breaches between 2010 and 2014; in the first four months of 2015 alone, more than 99 million healthcare records were exposed.
  • What about the consideration of standards? The Federal Trade Commission is still mulling over that topic while professional organizations continue to discuss guidelines that might lead to standards.
  • What new organizational structures and funds will be required to drive software development?
  • How will healthcare providers or payers retool their IT architectures to mine the value in all this new data? And who owns the data?
  • How can early adopters gather new insights from the data and gain significant competitive advantages?
  • Where will progressive healthcare organizations find all the data scientists required? And how should they be added to the organization?

Appraising the value, risk and ultimate benefits

These are some dizzying questions. The bottom line: Is the end product (actionable data) worth the investment and hurdles?

The answer is a qualified yes – if it creates new care models, improves the patient experience, lessens the likelihood of readmissions, and drives efficiency in provider or payer business operations (after the matter of who pays for the collection of this information is settled.)

To move the needle, healthcare IT departments will need to retool for the IoT. Industry groups will need to propose standards and help regulatory agencies formalize standards. Ultimately, care teams will need solutions that sense, report, and analyze processes in ways that can automate and improve clinical workflows, reporting requirements, and the coordination of care.

The most impactful contribution of the IoT will be its ability to produce actionable analytics, something healthcare has long needed. IoT will continue to be talked about in terms of volume, velocity, and variety, but CEOs need to add value as the fourth “v” in that equation.

IT and corporate leaders should view analytics not as a cost center but as a value center and develop metrics that allow measurement, monitoring, and tracking to prove the value of IoT analytics to the organization. The Consulting Services group at Cisco has characterized the IoT as “fundamentally about economic value – what it will do for business and individuals and organizations” globally. The company estimated the opportunity to be worth $14.4 trillion.

As in any decision, of course, risk must be considered: health outcome risk, legal risk, and patient experience risk. Once those issues are weighed, then the challenge of building analytic experience and leadership arises.

Healthcare’s next big thing?

Beyond dollars, the Internet of Things and the analytics it can provide is the next big thing in the evolving healthcare ecosystem. When data can be tracked and analyzed in real time – then applied to immediate decisions – everyone wins. Every nurse, doctor, and, to an increasing degree, every consumer and patient knows that the journey is about living healthier lives. That’s what population health is truly all about.

Using data from IoT tools and analytics, IT leaders can help find that unicorn.

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