IoT applications in the fight against COVID-19

In times of social distancing, the Internet of Things (IoT) has enabled diagnosis and treatment of patients remotely, and facilitated the delivery of vital medicine and medical equipment to isolated areas. This blog explores the use of IoT technology in remote patient monitoring and vaccine cold chain management during the Ebola and COVID-19 crises, while reflecting on necessary factors for IoT to scale.

IoT brings healthcare relief in developing countries

Overwhelmed health facilities and reduced access to in-person consultations during COVID-19 has accelerated the need for remote medical care. IoT, defined as “the coordination of multiple machines, devices and appliances connected to the internet through multiple networks”, enables remote diagnostics, treatment and monitoring. The technology can improve patient care by connecting patients to health practitioners, and enabling the collection and analysis of data that can improve patient care. Here are some major IoT-enabled healthcare applications in developing countries:

Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM) – IoT-powered telemedicine helps hospitals and clinics to sustain remote treatments. RPM in particularuses digital technologies to gather health data from one patient and transmit the information to healthcare providers in a different location for assessment and recommendations. For instance, CMED Health (Bangladesh) provides an IoT-enabled health monitoring solution via a mobile app. Users can monitor their primary health vitals remotely by integrating IoT-enabled smart medical devices with the app. The measured data is sent to CMED’s cloud server, which can be accessed and analysed by authorised doctors. The CMED app produces ‘colour coded results based on the emergency level’ of the user’s health status. During COVID-19, this allowed CMED’s team to identify and escalate emergency situations. 1.5 million people in Bangladesh have benefited from CMED Health’s platform during the pandemic.

Healthcare management – poor healthcare management in developing countries is often linked to the lack of efficient visualisation of hospital capacity, particularly when it comes to bed availability. To respond to this shortage, South Africa-based Gauteng health services introduced an electronic Bed Management System (eBMS) to identify the availability of beds across multiple sites. Using cloud-based technology, the IoT sensors placed on the beds enable hospital staff to seamlessly identify the beds’ availability. eBMS usage resulted in important reductions in the wait time for a bed, providing patients in emergency departments with timely access to the care. IoT solutions such as eBMS can give critical guidance to healthcare stakeholders and help governments prepare for future pandemics.

Vaccine cold chain monitoring – ensuring essential immunisation services during COVID-19 has proven to be challenging in developing countries. Mobile technology and IoT have the potential to optimise the vaccine’s supply chain. Through IoT sensors placed on the vaccine, cold chain data loggers transmit accurate information of condition logs via cellular data networks to the cloud. One example is the Electronic vaccine intelligence network(eVIN), an IoT-enabled mobile-based technology developed by the UNDP and the Indian government, provides real-time logistics management across the vaccine cold chain. The app – connected to IoT sensors placed on the vaccine – tracks the location, temperature and stock levels of vaccines, ensuring the supply is safe and reliable. The adoption of eVin in India has resulted in the reduction of vaccine stock-outs by 80 per cent.

Healthcare delivery drones – IoT-enabled drones have proven to be a lifeline for the delivery of tests, PPE, medicines and other vital medical supplies to populations in developing countries. Since May 2020, Zipline enabled drones to deliver vital medical supplies to rural health centres in Rwanda and Ghana. The drone company delivers about 160 different medical products, serving close to 2,500 hospitals and health facilities across Rwanda and Ghana during the pandemic. Other types of drones played an active role in disinfecting public spaces or detecting COVID-linked symptoms.

IoT for healthcare: Challenges and opportunities

Firstly, IoT deployment often comes with challenges around connectivity, power, spectrum and bandwidth requirements, as well as cost. However, the reduced cost of computing (including sensors) and increased mobile broadband penetration are expected to drive the use of IoT in healthcare. The cost effectiveness of standardised low-power wireless technologies will also help that trend.

Furthermore, large-scale deployment of the technology in healthcare relies on the transmission of health data and records, giving rise to privacy and security concerns. These concerns have propelled national IoT laws to be implemented in developed markets. However, there’s still a need for effective regulations in developing countries to drive the adoption of IoT.
Finally, IoT-applied healthcare often comes with limitations. A large number of health issues require physical health examination to reach a diagnosis. Also, images and videos transmitted via IoT-powered telemedicine can be lacking high quality resolution, making physical healthcare necessary.

The adoption of IoT in healthcare can be accelerated by the role of mobile operators. A case in point is Controlant, a firm specialising in solutions for cold chain monitoring. The company collaborates with mobile operator Vodafone to track real-time data on Controlant vaccines using the Vodafone Managed IoT Connectivity Platform. While Europe and the Americas have been the growth regions for Controlant, the group is expanding its scope of operations to Africa, with planned pilot projects in Kenya and Nigeria. Such partnerships with mobile operators will open new opportunities for IoT-enabled healthcare in developing markets

IoT technology offers developing markets the opportunity to fight COVID-19 effectively and most importantly to accelerate the digitalisation of healthcare systems, plugging critical gaps in affordability, quality and access. Beyond COVID-19, further development of IoT could help predict future pandemics, by using statistical-based methods and converging with artificial intelligence and big data. This could position IoT as a key enabler of healthcare transformation in the near future, from a reactive to a proactive system.