Of all the areas in which the Internet of Things can revolutionise the world, in my eyes one of the most exciting - with the potential to help some of the most vulnerable people on a massive scale - is healthcare.
IoT has the potential to allow patients with long-term and chronic illnesses to monitor themselves remotely in an effective way, without the need for intervention by healthcare professionals - barring emergencies. With healthcare providers increasingly under strain, this means patients would be allowed to leave hospitals and clinics earlier, as physicians are enabled to monitor them from home rather than keeping them in hospitals for observation. For those with long standing conditions, this prevents or delays the need for costly long-term care in nursing homes.
In my conversations with Rafael Hoekstra of the Faculty of Chemistry at Universitat Rovira i Virgili, we discussed the main problems that healthcare providers - as well as individuals managing their health - face today.
The key problem is centralisation - from the lack of available care in remote and developing regions, to the unaffordability of care 'available' in developed nations. But the Internet of Things is set to undergo the same revolution that has taken place in transport and telecommunications - that of decentralisation and personal empowerment.
The move towards decentralisation is happening with the adoption of home-based diagnostic testing and point-of-care analysis in the hospital, as well as the increasing use of telemedicine for remote communication with medical professionals. In short, the IoT is reducing the distance in time and space between patients, diagnostic tests and doctors.
But moves to implement these solutions are beset with challenges. As with all technological revolutions, the question of standards takes some time and struggle to be worked out. Just as various protocols have become the standard in the World Wide Web, so too must robust standards for the secure transfer of sensitive information related to health be developed and agreed upon throughout the industry.
While there are several devices emerging at an early stage, widespread development requires standards to be adopted in collaboration with healthcare providers. Unfortunately, it is challenging to convince an established industry to adopt new and foreign technologies. Not only does this imply extra work, but also it threatens existing jobs.
While as far as healthcare is concerned, the IoT has yet to see its 'killer app', there are many exciting possibilities for the future. The most promise lies in generating big data of physiological parameters of individuals. While the majority of medical information available is based on snippets of information from hundreds or thousands of people, the long-term study of individuals is bound to generate new insights into the patterns of well-being of a single person.
Analysts predict that the market for IoT in healthcare will be worth $117 million by 2020. The challenges are by no means insurmountable, but with only limited numbers of healthcare professionals to go around the Internet of Things certainly provides a way that we can do more with less. This means more people around the world - no matter where they are - will be able to access gold-standard healthcare when they need it.
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