The Internet of Things (IoT) is next up in our series of articles on how Future Technologies will impact pharmacy. In this article, we’ll examine how other industries use IoT, how pharmacy currently utilises it, and how its impact will grow as technology advances.
What is the Internet of Things (IoT) and how does it work?
The Internet connects computers across the world across the same network (the world wide web). The Internet of Things works in a similar way, but instead of Personal Computers (PC’s), it connects…well, things.
The “things” in question are manufactured with components that can communicate with other devices and send data through signals, as well as their primary function. These are “Smart” devices. Things like smartphones and Smart TVs are already ingrained into the fabric of the modern world.
The Internet of Things is growing
Increasingly, entire households are becoming “smart”, controlled via a Home Device like the Amazon Echo or Google Dot.
Inhabitants can simply declare, “Alexa, it’s dark in the lounge” and the lounge lights up. Or, “Alexa, it’s party time!” and be greeted by Despacito, a whole different lighting arrangement, and the jacuzzi firing up.
IoT technology works by connecting all these devices to a centralised CPU, which processes, organises and analyses all the data sent to it from each connected device. In industrial usage, the central processing unit often configures and facilitates the devices communicating and interacting with each other, too.
Healthcare should focus on providing the best care, not caring about the best provider.
The future is automated
This all happens without human interaction, barring setting up the device and its instructions.
The Internet of Things is still in its infancy, like the rest of the technology in “Industry 4.0.” And like most of these fields, it benefits from its interactions with other technology, such as Artificial Intelligence & Big Data. With every passing day, more devices are becoming “smart”, and optimising their use for how we live.
But let’s explore how it’s currently utilised, before taking a prospective look at how pharmacies can harness it further.
How is IoT currently used in Pharmacy?
Manufacturing, supply chain management, and warehousing all use IoT along the production and storage chain.
If you’re a frontline pharmacist, you’re wondering when any of this technology affects you in your pharmacy. Just like all technology, when it’s first released, it’s generally super expensive and not worth the investment for smaller businesses.
But as the IoT technology grows cheaper, the good news is that pharmacy IoT almost certainly brings massive improvements for patient care.
How can Pharmacy harness IoT further in the future?
Whilst, in the changing landscape of Earth 4.0, anything is feasibly possible, I’ll restrict this section to the imaginable impact.
- Monitoring the “Cold Chain” of refrigerated drugs.
- Improved treatment quality
- Smart wearables monitoring and linking patient health data to the PMR.
Smart wearables and digital health tech
Monitoring medicine use, as well as the impact of medicine on things like heart rates, and blood sugar spikes. This could radically improve the New Medicine Service. Imagine patients taking home specific wearables or sensors with them when starting a new treatment and new medicines.
Monitoring someone’s health remotely and automatically during a period of new treatment?
Now that’s smart.
Monitoring the Cold Chain of refrigerated drugs
IoT devices already check and control temperatures of food. Think sensors with medicine that detect if they’ve been outside controlled temperatures long enough to spoil. Barring technology malfunction, which is rare, the efficiency and assurance of drug controls skyrockets, when you have paper trail proof the drugs have never gone above a certain temperature.
Improved treatment quality
As we touched on in the future tech guides to AI and Big Data, ultimately, the more data you’re working with when consulting a patient, the more informed your judgments are. That’s only a good thing when it comes to patient outcomes.
A great example here is tracking outpatients rehab/recovery with Smart devices, guaranteeing patients adhere to drugs and physio exercises by having them having to record it with a smart device, either one that dispenses the drugs at the right time, or one that detects the motion necessary for someone completing rehab exercises.
The major difference-maker
The biggest impact of an IoT pharmacy, in particular community pharmacies, is in enabling pharmacies’ evolution towards becoming the first point of contact for healthcare.
Let’s demonstrate with a simple example of this in action.
Patient X has diabetes.
Monitoring diabetes includes:
- Blood glucose levels
- Blood pressure
- Cholesterol levels
- Heart health
- Eye, kidney, and foot health.
Patient X consents to data sharing between their devices and their Patient Medication Record in the pharmacy.
Some of these are easier to monitor from home than others. So Patient X wears a smart heart rate monitor measuring both sleep and heart rate, and weighs themselves regularly on smart weighing scales.
If the smart devices detect data out of healthy ranges, the PMR raises an amber or red warning on Patient X’s record, which automatically triggers an SMS & email being sent advising the patient to visit the pharmacy.
The pharmacist then performs a range of checks, exploring the patient’s health more extensively.
The patient is then advised further: either referred, or advised on further monitoring and behavioural precautions.
This gives the patient more control and agency over their health, whilst not letting poor health slip through the cracks just because it wasn’t in line with a 6-monthly health checkup.
What are the challenges in adopting an IoT Pharmacy Practice?
Whilst IoT tech undoubtedly has benefits for pharmacy, like all things, there’s always risk involved and different challenges posed.
Here are a few of the major challenges pharmacy will face when further integrating IoT into standard practice:
- Data Security & Privacy
- Universal Functionality & Integration
- IoT is 24/7/365
- Internet Connectivity
- Current limitations of IoT
Data Security & Privacy
This is the biggest issue surrounding IoT technology. Though it feels unavoidable with Smart Cities developing all over the world. How do you opt-out of IoT when you live in a Smart City?
But the point stands. There are a whole raft of issues when it comes to patient data, especially when you’re entering the realm of real-time monitoring and Big Data. With a data leak, hackers aren’t just accessing that Patient Y has IBS, they’re potentially accessing what their current blood sugar levels are. Scary potentials follow with possible uses of that information.
Universal Functionality & Integration Issues
What happens if Apple develops a great network of devices that all work harmoniously with one another, but then Google brings out a revolutionary singular device that massively improves patient outcomes? Google’s tech historically tends not to work with Apple. But healthcare should focus on providing the best care, not caring about the best provider.
Your Alexa not synchronising with your iPhone is an inconvenience.
The fact that situations such as this might arise in healthcare is unconscionable.
Morally, innovation in healthcare tech shouldn’t be exclusive.
IoT is 24 hours a day
Whilst hopefully the automated nature of the technology means you don’t need 24/7 human monitoring, it may mean requiring the technology being left switched on 24 hours a day. Hopefully that’s all handled on cloud servers and this is a non-issue. But if it is, then keeping your systems online all day could run up costs.
Continuing that thread, the overall cost of these devices needs paying by someone. Unless the NHS, (or your respective healthcare system) is going to front the investment for these costs some day, pharmacies must invest in their own progress as usual.
That said, pharmacies fulfilling this role in the healthcare of local communities means there’s potentially more substantial contracts from the NHS. So it’s an investment for generating more revenue at the other end (as you’d hope most investments are!).
Current limitations of IoT tech
Before IoT becomes universal, there are a few barriers the technology itself must overcome.
- Battery life on devices
- The distance between device and receiver currently only works via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, severely limiting its range.
- More compatible devices (currently limited by demand and expense at the moment.)
An IoT pharmacy would improve patient care, and we need to embrace IoT as soon as possible.
All in all, if we’re using smart sensors for cooking steaks to perfect temperatures, it seems about time as a society that we began investing into more technology for keeping people healthy.