The Internet of Things (IoT) is a quickly growing field that trickles down into many industries and will ultimately affect numerous facets of life for the average person. One of the areas of IoT that has received a tremendous amount of publicity and attention is healthcare. Recently, in December of 2014, BlackBerry partnered with Nanthealth to use QNX and the BlackBerry platform to develop and create new avenues for healthcare improvements through the use of embedded and connected devices.
The idea behind IoT and the Big Data trend is that there is already a wealth of information and data that is currently being collected or that can be collected to improve access to, increase the quality of, and, most importantly, reduce the cost of care. Things like 24-hour heart monitoring or a compilation of thousands of genomes to unlock a cure for a disease are ways that collecting healthcare data can yield benefits, but this is only a small window into what IoT is, why it’s important and who’s involved.
IoT-related healthcare systems today are based on the essential definition of the IoT as a network of devices that connect directly with each other to capture and share vital data through a secure service layer (SSL) that connects to a central command and control server in the cloud. Kevin Ashton, who coined the term “The Internet of Things,” explained a decade after first using the phrase at a business presentation in 1999, “Today, computers—and therefore, the Internet—are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information. The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy—all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world.” The solution, he has always believed, is empowering devices to gather information on their own, without human intervention.
The benefits of this are twofold. As our everyday devices and appliances get more sophisticated and powerful, they are also becoming much better suited and more efficient at collecting data on their own. Not only that, but it also takes the human input aspect of analyzing a handwritten chart or graph out of the equation, improving the integrity of the data collected; something which could potentially mean the difference between life or death in healthcare.
Often, people know about IoT but the question of why we need it seems to always be lost in the often confusing hierarchy of what relation the different bits and pieces have with the people they’re supposed to be helping. IoT plays a significant role in a broad range of healthcare applications, from managing chronic diseases at one end of the spectrum to preventing disease at the other.
Hospitals are often understaffed and over-populated; an issue that plagues the quality of care the world-over. IoT is filling the void within clinical care to provide round-the-clock monitoring where nurses and doctors cannot. Recording every single vital sign for every single second, embedded devices like the BlackBerry HBox serve as a hub of all medical data related to a patient, to provide easy access to medical records by transmitting information to and from the patient, doctor and point of care. This allows health-care professionals to make the most efficient use of their limited time by analyzing summarized data collected over long periods of time and looking for anything out of the ordinary.
This same quality monitoring is also being expanded into the newly forming remote monitoring field. The advent of IoT allows doctors to monitor patients’ health remotely without requiring them to come in for an appointment or, in rural/remote areas, involve the need for lengthy journeys to their closest healthcare facility. This isn’t just for chronic health concerns but can also be used to alert first responders about potentially critical situations like a heart-attack or fall.
The field is so broad that it is usually very difficult to mobilize resources required for important research. Many clinics do not have the time, nor the capital to spend on expensive biological samples or time-consuming surveys. This presents a unique benefit that IoT can, and is contributing to disease research. The NantOmics Cancer Genome Browser platform on the BlackBerry Passport enables deep, interactive reporting on genomics data for physicians and other treatment providers in clinical settings – for example, giving oncologists a powerful view into the individual genetic alternations that make each patient’s disease unique and highlighting relevant treatment options. This can also extend into collecting global healthcare data and provide an important means of protection against pandemics, even potentially pinpointing problem areas before they get out of hand.
There is a lot of data that can be extracted and leveraged into propelling advancements in healthcare through IoT, but the fundamental issues, like any other source of data, remain when it comes to security and quality of data.
IoT-driven services generate big amounts of real-time data (not all of which are trustworthy and reliable), and often have associated privacy and security implications. Besides the need to properly justify and plan the large investments in IoT solutions (by carrying out extensive impact, risk and cost-benefit assessments, which are not trivial tasks), other challenges facing IoT in healthcare include how to make sense and best use of such ‘big data,’ while preserving patients’ privacy and data security. Healthcare providers can only be really ‘smart’ if they have in place the necessary intelligent, robust and reliable functions to integrate and synthesize these big data and filter out any unwanted ‘noise’ for the purpose of improving efficiency, equity, sustainability and quality of life.
BlackBerry’s Project Ion offers a secure public application platform that enables a new generation of IoT applications that can access massive amounts of data from multiple sources and allow businesses to make timely, informed decisions. Powered by QNX® technology and BlackBerry secure enterprise mobility management, this platform securely manages data from millions of end points across multi-device, multi-platform environments and offers the resources necessary to access massive amounts of data from multiple disparate sources and distill it into meaningful, actionable information using open source and third party analytic tools.
For all the benefits that Big Data and IoT provide, they still require massive amounts of work to make sense of it all. If you’re standing in a room and ask six people to give you their opinion on synchronized swimming, it’s relatively easy to analyze and understand what each of them said. But if you had a room full of thousands of people and asked all of them the same question, you’d quickly find that it’s not so easy to determine whether the majority like synchronized swimming or don’t. It’s for this reason that we’re starting to see new players in the healthcare space, as new data-driven initiatives begin to form.
Because the QNX Neutrino RTOS has been around for over 30 years, BlackBerry’s embedded OS and IoT services have had time to proliferate through many markets, including the medical device industry, but there are other players in this space that are vying for a spot ahead of the curve in IoT.
Unlike the traditional members of corporate healthcare, IoT is presenting a very enticing environment for data companies and service providers to enter the space. Companies like: Siemens, Ericson, General Electric, and IBM, are starting to take a bigger focus on embedded devices and big data in the healthcare industry. Most of these companies have already been building medical devices and other tools for the industry – but the emphasis is now on building a platform for all of those various devices.
The vast field in which many of these companies play is what makes IoT so interesting. From hardware to software, the IoT race will not be solely in the virtual word of bits and bytes; it will be very much a competition to build physical devices as well. It’s a new field that will be pushing companies to venture into new partnerships and forge new relationships to get the hundreds of thousands of embedded medical devices to work seamlessly in concert with each other to provide us with the best information possible for care.
A thing, in the Internet of Things, can be a person with a heart monitor implant, a farm animal with a biochip transponder, an automobile that has built-in sensors to alert the driver when tire pressure is low — or any other natural or man-made object that can be assigned an IP address and provided with the ability to transfer data over a network.
As Kevin Ashton said in 1999, “If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things — using data they gathered without any help from us — we would be able to track and count everything and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling and whether they were fresh or past their best.”
With these advantages come enormous risks, especially when it comes to the accuracy and security of IoT data. David Stephenson, author of SmartStuff: An Introduction to the Internet of Things, says “Paradoxically, the very principle that makes the IoT so powerful — the potential to share data instantly with everyone and everything (every authorized entity, that is) — creates a huge cyber security threat.”. This is something that cannot be overstated and is a space where BlackBerry, along with others, is aiming to provide the backbone, upon which these entire data networks will function not just efficiently, but more importantly, securely and safely.