Is the IoT Allowing Telehealth to Expand Too Quickly?
By Kayla Matthews

The rise of Internet of Things (IoT) technology happened extremely quickly. As it did, people began excitedly thinking about options for applying it to the medical sector and using it to expand the quality and availability of health care. However, rapidly developing technologies often bring challenges. The IoT, as it applies to health care, is no different.

Generally speaking, the terms telehealth and telemedicine can often be used interchangeably. Telehealth refers to the use of technologies such as digital platforms, mobile apps, websites, etc. to educate, diagnose or even prescribe treatment to people experiencing health issues.

A report from market analysis firm Meticulous Research projects a market worth for the IoT health care sector to surpass $322 billion by 2025. If that happens, the industry will achieve a combined annual growth rate of 29.9%. Here’s a look at some of the challenges and opportunities presented by the IoT and telehealth.

Differences in State Regulations for Telehealth Care

One of the challenges of the rapid availability of telehealth services is that state-based differences define the stipulations surrounding getting reimbursed for it by health insurance or Medicare. For example, some states require that real-time communication happens between doctors and patients during telehealth appointments.

There is also a lack of consistency regarding physicians getting the credentials to practice in particular states. Before the days of telemedicine, doctors typically only sought state licensure where they intended to physically practice. This has changed now, since many telemedicine providers give care to patients across many states.

Some state-specific challenges are getting ironed out, albeit slowly. Regulators are scrambling to catch up. The telemedicine opportunities brought about by the IoT have opened a new world of possibilities. However, the promises they offer should not overshadow the need to follow applicable laws.

Device-Related Challenges

One of the advantages of applying the IoT to medical care is that it allows providers to gather ongoing information about their patients. Specialized platforms can then collect data about patients, which works especially well if those people have chronic illnesses. Providers can stay abreast of health changes, even when those things happen between office visits.

There are also IoT devices that help people become more proactive about managing their health needs. They might use smart medication dispensers to stay on a doctor’s recommended regimen or wear watch-like gadgets that monitor for possible seizure activity.

However, it’s easy to imagine the consequences of medical devices worn at home if people don’t receive thorough training about how to use them. For example, if a person wears a medical device incorrectly so it doesn’t pick up signals frequently enough, any data gathered for further analysis could be incomplete and inaccurate.

When a person wears a medical device in a hospital, professionals put the gadget on them, then check to ensure the product is working as it should and that the placement is adequate. In a telemedicine setting, those things don’t happen, and the wearer may not know something’s wrong.

Consumer-facing connected medical devices are so widely available that some people might try to use them in place of going to the doctor. Then, they could delay face-to-face care for an ailment that requires extensive diagnostics. Although a doctor can tell a lot about a patient from the data given via a wearable, they still may need to palpate the abdomen or do something else a device alone can’t achieve.

The IoT Can’t Replace the Human Touch

The IoT allows health care providers to become more reliant on digital platforms. That option could make problems like illegible handwriting less problematic. In one study, e-prescriptions reduced medication errors to only 6.6 per 100 prescriptions. They previously happened at a rate of 42.5 per 100.

In another example of what’s possible with medical-based IoT applications, a research paper proposed a connected solution for anesthesia monitoring. It needed an Android app and an integrated cloud system to work. The team behind this plan pointed out that such a setup would allow for watching several patients simultaneously through the platform.

The IoT has substantial potential, even outside of telemedicine. Returning to the subject of telemedicine, a survey of several hundred physicians showed that most prefer not to give bad news to patients through connected platforms. Nearly 90% said they wouldn’t want to discuss such matters through anything other than an in-person format.

Respondents weighed in and said that failing to talk about those things in person equaled lacking empathy. Others said that when they spoke to patients in person, it was easier for the recipient to focus on the message, letting the doctor get into describing potential treatment plans.

Some companies offering services that blend the IoT and telemedicine offer the possibility of a patient being seen at their home or office rather than solely over a connected platform. That option could bridge the gap, especially when the doctor needs to discuss serious topics.

Cybersecurity Risks Are Genuine Concerns

Many connected medical devices aim to help people live better by giving them more independence if they have chronic health concerns. Others give proactive alerts, such as by telling people when their blood sugar level is too low. Some telemedicine platforms link with electronic health records, letting providers know about a patient’s history before they begin their assessments.

These things are positive, but firms developing telemedicine and IoT platforms cannot ignore the cybersecurity threats posed by vulnerable connected devices. Internet security experts know hackers could infiltrate connected devices and make them behave abnormally or harm a patient.

If any telemedicine provider uses connected devices within patient care, they should implement techniques to mitigate the threats. Automatic software updates could help, and people should learn how to recognize and report strange device performance.

Awareness of Challenges, Hope for the Future

The IoT and telehealth could complement each other, but that can only happen when people understand the current challenges and work to address them. Success in that endeavor will take time, but it should prove worthwhile.

Kayla Matthews writes about technology, the IoT, FutureTech and big data. Previously, her work has been featured on IoT Times, InformationWeek, The Daily Dot and IBM’s Big Data Hub blog. To read more of Kayla’s work, please follow her personal tech blog at ProductivityBytes.com.