Imagine the Possibilities: A New World of Connected Healthcare
December 2013

When considering the future of M2M, it’s easy to get excited about its potential to transform business processes and industries. But the area where M2M technology may have the most significant impact on human beings—potentially improving the lives of millions of people—is in healthcare. 

New connected healthcare, or ‘mhealth,’ applications are already sweeping the world. By putting healthcare data in the hands of clinicians and patients in realtime, all the time, these applications promise to improve patient outcomes and quality of care, and dramatically reduce healthcare costs. 

A June 2013 Juniper Research study forecasts remote monitoring will save the world’s healthcare systems as much as $36 billion throughout the next five years. These savings derive from a number of factors, including: 

  • Reducing the need for office visits and hospital readmissions by letting doctors monitor patients with chronic diseases remotely 
  • Helping to identify problems and intervening earlier, before more serious interventions are required 
  • Empowering individuals with the data they need to make more informed, healthier lifestyle choices 

With those kinds of potential savings, we can expect to see huge growth in healthcare M2M solutions in the coming years. And in fact, analyst firm MarketsandMarkets projects the worldwide mhealth market will grow to more than $23 billion by 2018.

One of the most interesting questions still to be settled is how exactly all of these mhealth sensors and applications will stay connected. Today, the industry is exploring a variety of options, from short-range wireless solutions that connect via Bluetooth or local Wi-Fi, to embedded cellular connectivity, to hybrid solutions, where mhealth devices piggyback on the user’s cellular smartphone connection. 

Most likely, the best connectivity option will depend on the specific application. But expect cellular to play a significant role in the connected health devices of the future. Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities. 

Expanding Remote Monitoring
The biggest application today in healthcare M2M is remote monitoring, especially for people with chronic conditions like diabetes, congestive heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Connected monitoring devices can remotely collect data from the patient and upload it to the cloud, where it can be acted upon by a clinician. For example, someone with diabetes can use a connected glucose monitor. Her doctor can then monitor her health status remotely, and recommend changes in medication dosage without having to schedule an in-person appointment. 

Some devices available now already sound like science fiction. Connected World, for example, recently covered a new connected contact lens product that tracks the eye’s intraocular pressure to monitor patients with glaucoma. Medical technology companies are even developing connected “smart pills” that can monitor a patient’s vital signs and track responses to medications from inside the body. 

Expect to see significant growth in these types of connected monitoring applications. From pill bottles to bathroom scales, if it can be connected to a sensor that monitors a patient’s health status or compliance with a treatment plan, expect to see a connected health application in the coming years. Today, most of these monitoring applications are geared toward treating people with chronic diseases (and for good reason—that’s where the most healthcare cost savings can be recovered). But in the future, expect to see more mhealth monitoring solutions being used by everyone, including people who are generally quite healthy. 

A number of consumer device manufacturers are developing “wearable” health devices, many of which already use cellular connectivity in one form or another. Today, these devices track relatively basic information, such as steps taken in a day, amount of sleep, etc. In the future, expect to see wearables tracking more sophisticated health status metrics, as well as environmental conditions, and providing users with realtime health guidance. For example, if you have allergies or asthma and are wearing one of these devices, and you step out on the street, the application could tell you in realtime if weather or pollen conditions pose a potential hazard for you, and make immediate recommendations. Effectively, anyone anywhere will be able to have personalized health recommendations, customized for them, for that specific time and place. 

Remote Diagnosis
Another exciting avenue for the future of mhealth is the potential to use cellular and other connected health sensor technologies to allow clinicians to remotely diagnose patients. Devices like the Scanadu Scout are already being developed, which function almost like a Star Trek Tricorder, scanning a person’s vital signs and sending them to their doctor. 

Remote diagnosis, especially those using the world’s farreaching cellular networks, could play an important role in improving emergency care, allowing doctors to assist patients and first responders more quickly, whether a patient is at home, at work, or on the beach. But these diagnostic capabilities can also be useful for less dire situations. For example, if someone thinks he’s having a slight allergic reaction to something he ate, he could take a snapshot of his health status and send it to remote clinicians for analysis. 

Big Health Data
Perhaps the most profound implication of widespread mhealth solutions is the ability to apply “Big Data” analysis to the vast amounts of health data collected remotely. Innovative mhealth companies will not stop with remote monitoring, but will seek to harness the power of the mountains of data they’re collecting to be able to provide more accurate insights and recommendations to individuals, and help identify health trends and new opportunities to improve health outcomes and reduce costs. 

When millions of people have highly detailed records of their day-to-day health status throughout many years, imagine the impact this could have on medical research. The ability to look back in time at health data for people who contract serious diseases could spawn a new approach to clinical trials, and improve human understanding of disease processes. 

The Role of Cellular in mhealth
There is no single “right” way to connect remote mhealth devices. After all, there are as many possibilities for mhealth devices. But cellular offers several important advantages. 

Today’s cellular networks provide reliable connectivity in virtually every corner of the world, and offer an extraordinary degree of mobility and flexibility, especially for standalone devices. For applications that benefit from near-continuous connectivity, inside and outside the home, cellular can provide an ideal solution. Cellular-based mhealth devices may also be easier to deploy and maintain, as they typically offer a simpler setup for the end user than devices that must be paired with a smartphone or broadband gateway. 

Overcoming mhealth Barriers
So what has to happen before we see cellular-connected mhealth applications really take off in the marketplace? 

First, a smoother regulatory process would help. Today, new connected clinical devices may require years of study before they are approved for use by regulatory agencies. Of course, it’s appropriate to make sure any device functions as expected and protects patient data. But healthcare providers, insurers, and regulatory agencies will need to work together to find ways to accelerate the mhealth innovations that hold potential to lower costs and improve health outcomes, even as they protect safety. 

mhealth and wireless-solution providers also have more work to do on the technology side. Connected cellular devices need to become smaller, more power-efficient, and less expensive to develop and deploy to facilitate a true mhealth revolution. Fortunately, technology providers are already hard at work. 

New “multicore” M2M modules combine multiple M2M system components (cellular modem, application processor, location services, etc.) within a single, pre-integrated architecture. By providing an entire “M2M ecosystem on a module,” these solutions allow vendors to develop more secure, smallerfootprint connected devices, and to do so quickly and at a lower cost than integrating the entire architecture themselves. 

New M2M solutions also feature increasingly power-efficient microprocessors, which support wearable devices that can stay connected virtually anywhere. Large-scale cloud service platforms such as the Sierra Wireless AirVantage M2M Cloud make it easier for mhealth application providers to deploy, manage, and update millions of connected devices in the field. 

Unleashing mhealth Innovation
There is still plenty of work to be done before we see the full potential of mhealth. But the foundations for healthcare transformation are in place, and they will continue to grow. There are too many economic benefits to be realized—and too many people whose lives could be improved—to expect anything else.

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