Pandemics are, unfortunately, nothing new. For as long as human beings have existed, they have been the targets of infectious diseases. But while our vulnerability to communicable viruses and bacteria may be nothing new, the tools we have to fight these pathogens most certainly are.
And among the most significant of these weapons in the fight against communicable disease are Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Indeed, the vast and growing roster of internet-connected health technologies is every day illuminating its enormous benefit to human health as we continue to fight the spread of COVID-19 worldwide. But what, exactly, is the role of IoT in combatting the present pandemic and preventing future ones?
Enhanced Contact Tracing
Far and away one of the best mechanisms for preventing or slowing the spread of infectious disease is through contact tracing, the ability to alert individuals when they have potentially been exposed to a virus.
With IoT, contact tracing is more comprehensive and more rapid than ever before. Smartphone apps, for instance, can help track the movements of persons who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or who may be showing signs of the disease. This enables those who may be infected to begin self-isolating and to seek care sooner than those who may be incubating the disease unaware.
And, when it comes to containing a pandemic, the sooner treatment and quarantine begin, the less it will spread in workplaces, schools, and communities. Additionally, thanks to contact tracing capabilities, people are better able to identify (avoid) hot zones within the community, while at the same time feeling more comfortable and confident in entering restaurants, shops, and even schools and workplaces. This is because many of these apps also include the ability to identify areas of high, moderate, or low disease spread.
In addition to facilitating contact tracing, IoT devices are also helping to combat the pandemic through more effective patient evaluation and diagnosis. For instance, thanks to remote patient monitoring (RPM), those who may be infected no longer have to be evaluated in a physical clinic, thus potentially exposing more people to the virus while also taking up the precious resources of an already strained healthcare system.
In addition to more effectively monitoring patients while mitigating exposure risks, IoT devices also enable faster and more accurate diagnosis, particularly through the use of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Many IoT devices are connected to online health information systems (HIS) which enable healthcare providers to evaluate patients’ symptoms and risk factors using billions of health data points which are accessed and analyzed almost instantaneously through these IoT devices. This means that practitioners are better equipped than ever before to make prompt, accurate, and evidence-based diagnoses, even with patients presenting non-standard symptoms.
Supporting Public Health Practices
IoT devices aren’t just aiding in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic at the individual level of the patient, but they’re also supporting the development of effective public health policies. For example,
IoT is proving increasingly important to epidemiological research. Epidemiologists, after all, are tasked with the monitoring of infectious diseases both to understand how viruses are impacting communities and how viruses behave. This includes garnering and evaluating data to discern how viruses like COVID spread, whom they infect, and what impacts they have on the infected.
This information is vital because it enables epidemiologists and public health officials to define and implement policies to stem transmission at the level of the community and the individual alike. Using IoT-derived data, health officials and researchers can identify hot spots and risk areas and implement infection-control measures, from lockdowns to getting vaccines and therapeutics to where the need is greatest.
Ensuring Continuity of Care
Another benefit of IoT in fighting the pandemic derives from the ascendancy of telemedicine for both COVID and non-COVID patients alike. This includes the proliferation of remote physical and mental healthcare options. Smart health technologies, for instance, allow patients to access their care provider at the touch of a button, meaning that those who may be suffering from anxiety and depression relating to the pandemic can access the mental healthcare they need on demand, without having to break quarantine and risk contracting or spreading the virus.
Similarly, in addition to the remote monitoring capabilities previously discussed, smart devices can also provide important reminders, including nutrition and medication reminders, to support patient care without requiring the assistance of a home healthcare provider.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the worst public health crisis in modern history. But, as devastating as the toll of the outbreak has been for the global community, healthcare providers and public health officials are not without resources. Among the most powerful tools currently used to fight the pandemic is the vast array of IoT devices now facilitating pandemic research and containment. With these devices, individuals and healthcare teams alike benefit from more effective contact tracing to slow disease transmission. Similarly, researchers can accumulate vast amounts of data to track the infection and better understand how to contain it. Likewise, these devices enhance patient care through remote patient monitoring and on-demand access to healthcare providers.