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IoT and the Future of Healthcare

How the Internet of Things will Transform the Healthcare Field

Image Credit: smartData Enterprises — “IoT in Healthcare”

IoT: The Rise

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this term become mainstream to the public, with little knowing much about it other than the fact it meant the “Internet of Things”. It seems like it should be self-explanatory, and in a way, it is. However, there is a deeper level of understanding required to recognize the cause of its evolution and the implications it encompasses.

The technical jargon: A system of connected and interconnected computing devices, objects, tech gadgets, network nodes, receivers, and countless more that all have the ability to transfer constantly and vast amounts of data throughout a network without requiring any human interface interaction.

In layman’s terms: Before a cellphone became a smartphone, the only abilities it had was sending messages and calling people (imagine that!). Then, the internet was incorporated. Now, it could show you a video, play a song, read a book, respond to your voice.

Point being, connecting devices, objects, these things to the internet opens up a world of possibilities with which we as consumers, as well as corporations, reap the benefits. Within the past decade, as the number of things capable of connecting to a network vastly exploded, and we happily enabled them so, it became assumed that we simply want to take all things that exist, and connect them to the internet.

→ Thus, the term was coined in the mid 2010’s — The Internet of Things

How & Why it Matters

Things that are classified into IoT have three important functions that connect and work together and provide their unique benefits.

1. Collect and Send Information: Through sensors that collect information from the environment to help make decisions.

2. Receive and Act on Information: Things like printers, and cars receive information and then act accordingly such printing a document or unlocking the doors.

3. Doing Both: A self-sustaining, self-regulating system such as a smart thermostat, that can collection information, send it to the appropriate channels, and without needing feedback, can receive information and act accordingly — all resulting in an efficient streamlined process.

IoT impacts everything around us everyday in our daily lives. From the way we travel, the way we shop, the way we communicate, the way we work, even in ways in which we aren’t even aware.

Connected cars have been rapidly rising as vehicle manufacturers are able to not only gather massive amounts of data via the sensors and cameras embedded in vehicles, but also leveraging the data they’ve aggregated over time regarding traffic behavior, driving patterns, city infrastructure, and constantly changing traffic regulations.

Healthcare

Perhaps more than any other field, IoT’s potential in the healthcare field is unlike any other. The benefits derived from being able to collect critical healthcare data from sensors of almost endless variety is astonishing. To name a few, there’s personalized telemedicine, disease prevention and monitoring, health monitoring via blood pressure and diabetes, and neurosensors.

Aside from wearables, which are the most popular form of health “monitoring” devices, other devices that can monitor hospital assets can save hundreds of lives by constantly sending real-time data on essential hospital equipment. These devices are starting to enter in the healthcare field in massive numbers on both the doctors’ side as well as the patients’. Devices like ultrasounds, thermometers, glucose monitors, ECG’s, are all increasingly becoming connected and in constant communication with each other.

Real-time supervision from patients wearing heart monitors can immediately transmit that data to healthcare professionals who can immediately analyze it and save lives.

This gives rise to a new subcategory of IoT: IoMT — Internet of Medical Things. These encompass an array of internet-capable medical devices that are in constant communication with each other anonymously and are stored in protected environments like the cloud: AWS, Google Cloud, Azure, etc.

Currently, according to Gartner, “the IoT in healthcare is forecast to grow by 29% in 2020”.

Challenges in Healthcare

One could imagine that storing the massive amounts of data by devices that contain personal health information on millions of patients that are then transferred across vast networks opens the door to potentially dangerous data breaches that threaten to expose personal and confidential data not only from patients, but especially from healthcare institutions.

And it makes complete sense. It’s reasonable to assume that if a healthcare institution is prepared to hand over thousands of confidential medical records protected by HIPAA(Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), it’s expected the organization responsible for handling that data should be able to protect them much as they’d protect their own records of such.

Given that this is only the beginning of the IoT era, proper authentication techniques have not been properly vetted or tested among the vastly growing amount of data. In addition, the healthcare infrastructure needed to accommodate and handle the “widespread of connected devices” is not yet complete, so healthcare institutions will have to collaborate and work hand-in-hand to radically change the way they offer the services throughout their network with the aggregation of data on hand.

In fact, Alan Mihalic, the president and founder of the IoT Security Institute, has helped build a security framework that denotes guidelines for securing the vast number of communication channels, devices, and interfaces. According to his framework, healthcare institutions should be configured in a way that the data and information flow should be shared between all parties, stakeholders, engineers, architects — all of whom must absolutely be in compliance with the security framework so that any threat or attack will allow the institution to pinpoint at exactly which point their vulnerability lie.

Challenges in General

Before security concerns for healthcare are even discussed, there are a number of concerns regarding the safety of privacy and security in this rapidly growing IoT environment. Industry and government organizations have only just begun to understand the challenges they will have to face in regards to regulation, and have not yet reached the cusp of providing a viable solution, much less an informative discussion concerning the regulation of this data.

For example, in October 21, 2016, there was a massive DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack by the domain name system that caused inaccessibility to websites such as Twitter and Github. This particular attack was perpetrated by a bot network that consisted of a vast number of IoT devices that included cameras, IP gateways, nanny cams, etc.

In the example mentioned above regarding connected and self-driving cars, the companies heavily invested into it are similarly still in their pilot phase as they test out the ethical, safety, and physical implications of how these IoT devices can successfully interact with each other and become efficient in travel without human input, in this case the driver controlling the vehicle. This isn’t coming easy however, as there has been dozens of documented cases regarding vehicles unable to register obscure shapes that turned out to be people and in some cases, not even registering them at all. On top of it all, given the distinct architecture of the the roadways, highways, streets in each city and state, it encapsulates the long road ahead for these companies to be able to deploy their vehicles into the mainstream, and for the public to adapt to them.

Objectives to Address Challenges

Fundamentally, there are a number of objectives that are in place that are required by IoT systems. They are as follows:

  1. Data Confidentiality — Transmitted and stored data must not be accessible by malicious 3rd parties
  2. Data Integrity — Corruption of any sort of data must be detectable
  3. Non-repudiation — Any sender of data cannot deny their own sending of that data
  4. Data Availability — Any transmitted and stored data must be accessible and given access to authorized parties who have a right to that data

Despite the attempts to mitigate the risks posed by IoT, there are barriers of entry into the market as well as businesses planing to enter into the IoT space have largely been stuck in the pilot phase and unable to scale their infrastructure to accommodate for this vast network.

The first step however, is already exponentially taking place as organizations are beginning to transition their data to cloud-based systems, which is primarily where the heart of the IoT landscape rests. Cloud service providers are likewise configuring a plethora of data protection measures to protect that data.

While cyber security risk will increasingly become a concern as the IoT network expands, it is especially crucial in healthcare where there can be absolutely no room for error.

Next Steps

The most important step for any healthcare professionals, institutions, regulation organizations before they properly embrace and implement IoT in healthcare is that they engage in a substantial discussion of a framework for security and privacy professionals to implement and co-abide by, along with their relative counterparts.

The key to success ultimately lies in a constant communication and discussion while the industry keeps pace withe the rise in IoT.

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Yashey Mateen

Yashey Mateen

Software Developer, Business Consultant, with a head in the clouds.

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