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How the Internet of Things will pose new data pressures for providers

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What will health care look like in 2025?

Picture this: moment by moment, an abundant network of apps, sensors and devices produces patient-generated health data (PGHD) are helping providers to better manage chronic diseases, adjust treatment plans and keep patients healthy.

Patients, no longer reliant on visiting a “brick and mortar” health facility, are monitored and treated virtually in their homes, while feedback from their PGHD inspires them to adopt healthier habits and become active partners in their care. Advanced, real-time analytics give providers continuous knowledge to improve patient outcomes, clinical protocols and population health.

It’s a picture we’re swiftly catapulting toward.

Accelerating the blazing speed of change is the Internet of Things (IoT), or in healthcare, the Internet of Healthcare Things (IoHT)—the vast world of Web-enabled devices and the people connected to them. From wearables and implantables to ingestible sensors, smartphone apps to home monitoring systems, the IoHT facilitates data gathering, analysis and sharing, creating an intricately connected health care cosmos, one that’s ready to revolutionize patient care.

IoHT devices facilitate care transformation by enabling constant monitoring of patient conditions, automating communications with clinicians and averting impending health episodes. In enabling earlier intervention before a condition becomes more serious and reducing the need for emergency hospitalization, these devices also have the potential to lower costs dramatically. A Goldman Sachs report estimates that the IoHT can save the industry more than $300 billion, mainly by enabling improvements in chronic disease management.

Several dynamics have created fertile grounds for IoHT growth. First, the next wave of public and private payment models that rewards value over volume gives providers new incentives to be efficient in treating disease, and making—and keeping—patients well. The industry continues to seek new technologies to engage patients, gain insights into their individual care and deliver improved outcomes. The IoHT can drive outcomes-based medicine through early detection and data analytics that provide predictive capabilities.

Second, digital technologies have become more ubiquitous and affordable. Not so many years ago, the demographic gap between people with a home computer and internet access, and those without, was enormous. This lack of access greatly limited the opportunity to engage with the neediest patients, as well as to engage on demand, since they needed to be in front of their computer.

Smartphones have largely eliminated the gap between the haves and have-nots, and have provided a means of almost-continuous interaction with individuals through their phones. An estimated 92% of adults in the United States own a mobile phone of some kind, while 19% of smartphone owners have at least one health app on their phone. Also, the price of sensors, processing power and bandwidth has dropped precipitously, which has rapidly driven new technology adoption.

Third, with the surge in access to information and the tools to use it, patients have a larger role in creating the future of care. Empowered by their mobile devices, they are far more engaged in their health and have more control over their care experience. They also have more “skin in the game” as they shoulder more of the burden of funding their care through high-deductible health plans and rising co-pays. Tracking devices and monitors can curtail costly trips to the doctor’s office.

While the IoHT holds abundant promise to enhance patient care and drive down costs, several challenges need to be addressed to unlock its full potential.

Managing the data. To leverage PGHD effectively, data needs to be linked to a specific provider that takes responsibility for its management. The IoHT brings a new level of complexity to provider operations, and the sheer volume of patient data can be overwhelming. Providers will need to build new workflow processes and evaluate which information to include in patient records and to consider in care plans.

Also required are policies on what kinds of data to share and how often, along with procedures on how providers should review and use the data. To meet demand, network infrastructures will need to be improved and expanded. Such tools as software-as-a-service products and cloud services can help meet the challenge of scale.

Establishing interoperability. With a profusion of health care “things” on the market—all of which may have varied standards and communication capabilities—enabling these devices to talk with each other safely and effectively is an essential requirement. Standards organizations will need to collaborate to build compatibility among the array of devices that have been operating independently.

This doesn’t mean healthcare organizations need to wait to get started, because being able to integrate data in a variety of formats and standards will continue to be a necessity. Rather, new and emerging standards for device interoperability will make integration easier and accelerate adoption.

Protecting privacy and security. For cybercriminals, the IoHT opens more doors for malicious activity. Collecting and connecting voluminous amounts of protected health information takes privacy and security imperatives to new heights.

A strong security strategy includes authentication technologies and processes to verify patient and provider identities for access by authorized users only. Communication channels among devices in the IoHT must also be secure to maintain information integrity.

Gaining insights from analytics. Many healthcare organizations have focused on capturing data, but not on mining it to improve patient and population health. Without targeted analysis, data “noise” gets louder while its “signals” grow fainter. To make use of all the data streaming in from various sources, providers will need to develop new competencies in big data analytics that bring actionable insights to the point of care. They will need to build, buy or outsource an information technology infrastructure that supports advanced analytics across all care settings.

The IoHT is rapidly coming of age. This colossal network of linked devices—continuously collecting, sending and receiving data throughout the healthcare universe—will ring in a new era of connected health, patient-centric care delivery and data-driven health decisions.

For those who can build the coming change into the foundation of their business today, opportunities are limitless. The time is now to join the revolution.

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