A couch with a weight sensor in the cushions. Shoes that can time a person’s walk to predict a stumble. An ultrasound machine that can fit in the palm of your hand.
Health information technology experts say a robust wireless system can provide an environment where innovative products and services improve the medical field for patients and providers. But first there are some problems to solve in the form of interoperability, industry standards and information sharing.
“When we talk about infrastructure and 5G — which is just another generation of infrastructure – we talk about better bandwidth, lower latency; we’re really talking about the movement of data,” said Rob Havasy, executive director at Continua and vice president of the Personal Connected Health Alliance. “But what physicians want is information. That’s where we have a barrier today.”
Havasy shared his observations during a Brookings Institution event on the health Internet of Things and how 5G can improve that connectivity.
Jesse Pines, director of George Washington University Center for Health Care Innovation and Policy Research, echoed Havasy’s observations.
“The major barrier is that many organizations don’t share that information,” Pines said. “The second issue is that technology still does not really facilitate sharing information across platforms.”
Some hospitals are sharing information in health information exchanges, Pines said, which allows a doctor to view previous treatment at another participating hospital.
However, Pines said, “I think we’re really at the beginning of making interoperability usable. There are still many, many barriers from an information sharing perspective and also technology perspective, to make sure systems can talk to one another.”
Closer to science fiction
One way the communication sector is looking to improve information sharing is through updated regulations.
Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules for 5G wireless broadband.
“With the adoption of these rules, the U.S. is the first country in the world to open high-band spectrum for 5G networks and technologies, creating a runway for U.S. companies to launch the technologies that will harness 5G’s fiber-fast capabilities,” the FCC said in a press release.
Those capabilities include faster sharing of larger amounts of data, “which means great things for diagnosis and treatment,” said Bob Rogers, chief data scientist for big data solutions at Intel, who also spoke at the panel. “Data analytics enabled through 5G will be able to aggregate, analyze and make sense of data in new ways, making every device smarter because it’s connected to the cloud. Today there’s an incredible loss of valuable information in health care. In a health care system enabled by 5G, data silos and lack of semantic interoperability will not be tolerated. This is the promise of precision medicine: Secure access to the right information about each patient, so that the best care can be provided.”
Darrel West, vice president and director of governance studies at Brookings, recently published a paper entitled “How 5G Technology Enables the Health Internet of Things.”
In it he says that 5G will bring speed, reliability and cost-savings to patients, hospitals and doctors.
“Within a foreseeable period of time, consumers and businesses will have a more immersive relationship with their digital devices, and this will allow them to obtain high-quality medical care in real time and at affordable prices,” West said in his report. “Rather than having computing equipment that is disparate and separate, the 5G world will allow us to enter an era where real-time health services will become the norm rather than the exception. That will bring patients closer to a science fiction concept of digital integration than ever before.”
But Havasy said present day issues might be a better area to focus on.
Havasy said prevalent conditions like heart disease and diabetes can be mitigated with changes that don’t need a lot of bandwidth, such as measurements for blood pressure and glucose levels. But it does require a system that can handle a large amount of that data and at high demand.
“What I need is information delivered at the right moment to affect my behavior ahead of the problems,” Havasy said. “That becomes a big data problem. We need a system that can take all that in … look longitudinally at a person and make personalized recommendations to affect your behavior at the time when those recommendations make sense.”
But that leads to another problem, Havasy said. A lack of agreed upon algorithms, such as when to intervene based on a person’s blood pressure reading, or when to adjust a diuretic for a heart patient.
Those decisions currently fall to doctors, Havasy said, who are already feeling overwhelmed by the data they have.
“We need to automate this capture, automate these rules, that’s really the barrier we’re facing right now,” he said.