The European Commission has launched an €8 million project that aims to use the Internet of Things (IoT) to increase and enhance the remote care provided by hospitals. At a time when the coronavirus pandemic is stretching health systems to their limits, the project is one of several actions the EC is funding with the aim of developing “Next-Generation Internet of Things” tech that could help hospitals and other organisations operate more efficiently.
Dubbed IntellIoT, the project is a consortium of 13 participating companies and institutions, including Siemens, Philips, EURECOM, Aalborg University, University of Oulu, Philips, Sphynx Analytics, and the University of St. Gallen.
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Over the next three years, the 13 partners will trial a range of initiatives and tools intended to autonomously conduct health monitoring and interventions, while also analysing large quantities of medical data. Their aim is to save hospitals valuable time and money, while also reducing unnecessary (and currently risky) face-to-face contact between patients and practitioners.
Hospitals + Internet Of Things = Less Coronavirus Pressure?
One of the trials will see the University General Hospital of Heraklion in Greece team up with health technology firm Philips. Their aim will be to develop AI algorithms that can be used with diagnostic healthcare devices and sensors, potentially accelerating the diagnostic process while improving its accuracy. They will also evaluate and test new Internet of Things-based technologies that can act as intermediaries between patients and medical professionals, allowing for remote patient management.
According to Heraklion’s Prof. Fragkiskos Parthenakis, the project offers the opportunity to plug the gap in patient information that has worsened over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.
“In the beginning of the pandemic we all faced a lack of information and data, be it patients, doctors and political decision makers,” he says. “Intelligent IoT solutions that provide humanised, trusted and secure data will help facilitate the use of distributed AI for decision making and better service in healthcare in the future.”
While the Internet of Things is the headline technology being highlighted by the IntellIoT project, it will incorporate other emerging technologies to provide healthcare in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic and doesn’t endanger patient safety. This includes 5G, distributed computing, augmented reality, tactile internet, and artificial intelligence.
“By applying AI in a way that improves decision-making for healthcare providers, IntellIoT has the potential to help capture and make sense of each patient’s data throughout their unique care pathway, ultimately supporting the quadruple aim: an improved experience for staff and patients, better health outcomes and a lower cost of care,” says Anca Bucur, Senior Researcher at Philips.
In other words, the project isn’t aiming simply to insert existing Internet of Things applications into health care, but to also improve the intelligence and adaptability of devices used at the ‘edge’ (i.e. at the user-end) of IoT systems.
“There is … a need to rethink healthcare in light of this pandemic,” explains Rolf Riemenschneider, Head of Sector for Internet of Things at the European Commission. “Accelerated through Covid-19, IoT applications now need to look beyond connecting a variety of different wearable devices, by adding intelligence, autonomy and security to the IoT edge node, close to the users.”
The specific details of the individual technologies, applications and systems likely to be developed by the IntellIoT project haven’t yet been divulged by its members. It’s therefore hard to say whether the project will produce solutions that can replace a substantial number of functions currently fulfilled by medical professionals and existing technologies. Nonetheless, even replacing only a small number could make a crucial difference to how hospitals cope with the current coronavirus crisis.
One other worry is privacy and data security. IntellIoT’s participants have provided assurances that the systems they use will process data securely. But without specific details on the cybersecurity protocols and standards likely to be employed, the public at this moment can’t be sure that the growing use of IoT in healthcare will enlarge the attack space for bad actors to target.
Not Only IntellIoT
The IntellIoT project is not the only organisation harnessing the power of the Internet of Things in order to relieve coronavirus-related pressure on hospitals.
At the original epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals in China quickly began using telemedicine and robots to provide health care in the first quarter of the year. In Wuhan, the Smart Field Hospital opened in March, ‘staffed’ largely by robots and various Internet of Things devices. Inpatients were screened by 5G-connected thermometers to alert staff for anyone with fever, while they also wore smart bracelets and rings linked to CloudMinds’ AI platform, which received data regarding such vital signs as heart rate and blood oxygen levels.
Such deployments are only just beginning, with telemedicine beginning to be used more widely in Japan and the United States, among other nations. But while the actual use of such solutions remains at an early stage, there’s already a considerable body of research–published by universities around the world–which has concluded that the use of the Internet of Things will be necessary to relieve the workloads faced by hospitals, and to keep patients safe from contagion. Researchers in Tunisia even proposed a “home hospitalization system based on the Internet of things” in an article published in June in the Informatics in Medicine Unlocked journal.
It’s still too early to tell just how extensive IoT will be in healthcare. But with the coronavirus potentially remaining with us for several years to come, it’s very likely that we’ll witness a noticeable increase in its use.