Is the Health Sensor Revolution About to Dramatically Change Healthcare?

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healthcare sensorRay Kurzweil, the American author, computer scientist, inventor, and futurist, has pointed out that the history of technology shows that technological change grows at an exponential, not a linear, rate. As a result, we will not experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century. It will be more like 20,000 years of progress. While healthcare has been impacted by some of this technology-driven change (e.g., imaging technology), we have not experienced it to the degree that other industries have. That is about to change with the advent of health sensors.

A number of powerful technologies are on the verge of producing dramatic change in how, when, and where care is delivered including artificial intelligence, monitoring sensors, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, mobile computing technologies, and others. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the rapidly evolving field of sensors.

The Internet of Things: What It Means for Healthcare

The sensor revolution is part of the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT has been defined in a variety of ways, but it is generally described as an ecosystem of technologies that monitor the status of objects, individuals, and environments, capturing meaningful data, potentially interacting with each other, and communicating valuable information over networks to software applications that can analyze the data accurately and quickly to glean important information and trends. The IoT promises to be the most disruptive technology since the World Wide Web. Nowhere does the IoT offer more promise than in healthcare, where it is already being applied to improve care quality, access, and costs.

These technologies are being used by leading-edge organizations to grapple with both operational and clinical problems, in both inpatient and outpatient environments. Coupled with radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies, IoT can help hospitals better manage demand, inventories, assets, and throughput, as well as realizing better integration of services and processes. Clinically, the IoT offers improved monitoring and management of vital signs, infusions, medical device interoperability, medication administration, potential harmful events, and surgeries, to name a few.

Outpatient Care and the Sensor Revolution

Outpatient care is also being impacted by the sensor revolution. It promises the same operational benefits for clinics as hospitals enjoy. In addition, sensors offer the potential to harness the largest untapped healthcare workforce in the country — patients and their families. Early experience suggests these tools will be empowering and well received by all socioeconomic groups, and offer the potential to lower the annual costs of managing major chronic diseases by up to one-third.

This is significant given that roughly two-dozen chronic diseases account for approximately 75 percent of U.S. healthcare expenditures. They can support new, efficient care models that are more geographically dispersed, proactive, and continuous (24X7), while allowing individual care providers to effectively manage the health and well-being of more patients, thereby helping address the looming shortage of physicians and nurses.

As the technology for collecting, transmitting, and analyzing data continues to evolve at an exponential pace, we will certainly see more creative sensor-driven applications in healthcare spanning the continuum of care, from hospital to clinic to the patient’s home and workplace.

These solutions will not only be driven by healthcare needs, but also by consumer demand and market forces. One of dozens of examples is Apple’s recent announcement of its HealthKit development platform, Health App, and the Apple Watch. As a medical tool, HealthKit offers tremendous value for a variety of reasons. It can aggregate data from a range of apps or connected medical devices, like a glucose meter or blood pressure cuff, as well as a rapidly growing number of consumer-oriented fitness devices like the Apple Watch. It also offers the ability to automate the recording of medical metrics. If a patient/consumer is using connected devices, this helps to ensure the accuracy of the data because it goes straight from the device to the associated app on their iPhone and then into HealthKit. If a patient’s doctor or health system uses an electronic health record that supports HealthKit, that data can then be automatically entered into their medical record.

Facing the New Realities of Healthcare Economics

It is not only the exponential pace of technological advances that will drive this trend. The confluence of economic drivers like the growing need to control costs, improve quality, prevent harm, eliminate waste, and involve patients in their care will further fuel this revolution. Increasing deductibles and growing interest in monitoring health will also encourage consumers to use these systems and advocate for the effective use of the data they capture by their healthcare providers.

All of this will result in making vast amounts of new health and wellness data available to healthcare providers. This will further fuel the need for health systems to implement robust analytical and data-drive improvement systems that allow providers to optimally manage the health and well-being of populations.

The much-anticipated sensor revolution in healthcare is underway. And, this is just the beginning. The pace of change in this area will almost certainly experience exponential growth as new use-cases and technologies continue to emerge to address the need for more affordable, accessible, high quality, and patient-centric care.

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