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By now, you’ve probably heard of the Internet of Things (or IoT), a technical term for any network of sensors and small computing devices that exchange and share information to improve the functioning of real-world systems.

Global shipping companies are attaching smart IoT beacons to monitor and transmit the status of each of their pallets, trucks, ships and containers, down to their exact location, temperature, humidity and light exposure. Interstate gas pipelines deploy hundreds of sensors that power a predictive maintenance regime. Across industries, IoT networks save billions of dollars in direct costs (inventory, labor, security) and indirect efficiency through avoided maintenance and greener operations.

Health is no exception. According to Fortune Business Insights, the industry ranks fifth in global IoT spending. The medical IoT is expected to grow from $41 billion in 2020 to $188 billion by 2028. This growth has a good reason: connected medical devices, combined with the right software, can improve conditions and delivery, optimize care and devices and save lives.

As the healthcare industry expands into its IoT opportunity, practitioners must do what they do best: sort through the best solutions while ensuring system security and reliability. More devices mean greater vulnerability to cyberattacks. Before you spend a dollar on IoT, you should triple check any vendor’s security bona fides. And don’t forget a plan to handle the daily torrent of data these networks produce.

Some IoT solutions are attracting attention, such as digital pills with sensors that alert a health network when they encounter the patient’s stomach chemistry. Apps that use the Apple Watch to track the progression of Parkinson’s disease symptoms also show promise. But three IoT use cases are, to me, even more interesting because they are now available, road-tested, and improving the lives of millions of people every day.

AEDs connected to prevent loss of life

Nearly 18 million people die each year from cardiovascular disease, with 40-50% of these deaths being due to sudden cardiac arrest. Without immediate treatment, survival rates are extremely low, less than 1% worldwide.

Automated external defibrillators (AEDs) have significantly saved lives in sudden cardiac arrests. You’ve probably seen them attached to the wall in airports and offices for emergencies. These semi-portable devices can monitor and analyze a patient’s heartbeat, guide a bystander through chest compressions, and, as a last resort, come with shock paddles to help restore the patient’s heartbeat.

While hospitals are well equipped to deal with incidents, some 350,000 cardiac arrests occur outside of hospital every year. The vast majority of them are fatal. Until recently, consumers were reluctant to buy and keep an AED at home or in the car. They were overpriced and not that portable, but AED prices are coming down and having one on hand can make a huge difference. Research has shown that proximity to AEDs can increase survival rates to 100% when they can deliver shocks within 2.2 minutes.

That’s if AEDs are charged and checked regularly, and that’s where the IoT comes in. Connected AEDs can continuously assess battery and paddle status and transmit patient data to first responders and medical professionals for real-time remote monitoring. The FDA is approving more of these portable AEDs. I predict that every home, office and public place will eventually have a connected model to ensure its maintenance and avoid dramas.

Improving Blood Glucose Monitoring for Better Diabetes Management

Traditionally, diabetic patients have used fingertip pricks to test their blood sugar. This method has two main drawbacks: it does not continuously monitor levels, and the downside of these tests leads some patients to check less frequently than they should. Without access to real-time data, America’s 37 million diabetics are more vulnerable to extreme fluctuations in glucose levels that can lead to disorientation, loss of consciousness, or even death.

The solution is Continuous Glucose Monitoring, which combines a wearable sensor and a smartphone app to track blood sugar levels 24/7. CGM systems can issue predictive alerts before glucose spikes or dips. Longer term, I see diabetic patients combining continuous monitoring with IoT-connected insulin delivery devices that learn from data how much insulin to deliver and at what time.

Monitor critical sleep disorder information without interruption

About 25 million adults in the United States suffer from sleep apnea, a potentially serious disorder in which breathing stops and starts repeatedly throughout the night. The IoT has the potential to transform apnea treatment by allowing physicians to access real-time patient information and develop more accurate treatment programs.

Millions of Americans already wear CPAP machines at night to push air into their lungs at just enough pressure to keep your airways from collapsing. The emergence of internet-connected CPAP devices will allow patients to upload sleep data daily to a cloud-based management system, providing secure, real-time analysis of treatment progress. Doctors and patients will be able to treat sleep disturbances as they arise and intervene if necessary.

The benefits of IoT connectivity in healthcare are clear: better outcomes, more efficient care delivery, and happier patients and healthcare professionals. As long as the industry stays on top of growing issues related to cyber hackers and data management (both of which are manageable issues), I see a long future for this technology.

Photo credit: Andrey Suslov, Getty