Digital transformation

High technology is reshaping personalized health care with the Internet of Things

Laura Wilber
28 October 2015

4 min read

The Internet of Things (IoT) is quickly reshaping every industry. But standing in the way are questions concerning security, integration and aggregation of intelligence. High-tech companies are paving the way, working to move the IoT in a direction that will benefit humanity.

Myanmar store owner Ko Min Min is a lucky man. In 2011, he was declared cured of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (TB) after a grueling, two-year treatment that left him weak from anorexia, dizziness and joint pain. The rise of this newer, more lethal version of TB, and the deaths of 1.5 million people annually from all forms of TB – an otherwise fully curable disease – are due largely to patients’ spotty adherence to treatment regimens.

To combat this challenge, startup Proteus Digital Health in Redwood City, California, developed an ingestible sensor to enable prescription-compliance tracking. No bigger than a grain of sand, the tiny sensor can be embedded into pills.

Once swallowed, digestive juices react with chemical elements inside the sensor to create an electrochemical reaction, registered by a wearable digital patch that records the type of medicine, dosage and when the medication was taken. This data, along with vital signs, can then be transmitted via Bluetooth from the patch to a smartphone app, providing data and feedback to the patient and, with their consent, to caregivers and health care professionals.

This “digital medicine,” as Proteus calls the hybrid drug-device product, is a powerful symbol of a deep transformation underway in the health care industry, made possible by affordable, miniaturized sensors, processors and transmitters, low-cost wireless networks and mobile devices. Referred to collectively as the Internet of Things (IoT), this digital revolution is reshaping industries from manufacturing to utilities, transportation, consumer goods and, now, health care, touching everything from pharmaceuticals to hospital operations, medical-device implants and at-home patient care.


When Christian Riou, an infrastructure and security project director in the French government’s eHealth initiative, thinks about the potential of IoT to improve health care, he becomes slightly despondent.

“I think about an elderly patient in a remote area who has to travel long distances for pacemaker monitoring, about the parents who can’t embrace their infant in the neonatal unit because of the tangle of wires, and about many other scenarios in which the IoT could bring enormous and obvious benefits – but there are obstacles.”

Who, he wonders, will pay the cost of solving these challenges with IoT-enabled technology? “How do we ensure data security? How can we trust critical communications to Wi-Fi networks? And how are we going to implement such advanced technology when many hospitals are struggling just to modernize their core information systems?”

Laurent Fournier, senior director of Business Development, Qualcomm Europe, understands Riou’s concerns. “With the advent of the Internet of Things, it’s clear that every industry is becoming a high-tech industry. Some are better prepared than others for this transition, but our ambition at Qualcomm is to help them all stay focused on the IoT’s potential for their business and the customer experiences they enable. We want to address as many fundamental IoT issues as possible upstream, like security, reliability, advanced technology and economics.”

Qualcomm is addressing the challenge with a focus on smart, all-in-one semiconductor chips that integrate multiple pieces of the IoT puzzle, including connectivity, communications, sensing, navigation, embedded intelligence and image processing. At a basic level, tight integration of multiple components on a single chip enables IoT products that are smaller, smarter, cheaper, more energy efficient and more secure. Integration also makes life easier for IoT developers, giving them more bandwidth to focus on higher-level functionality and systems integration.



Qualcomm’s approach resonates with Hillary Sillitto, a fellow of the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) and author of Architecting Systems: Concepts, Principles and Practice. “Guaranteeing resilience and security is the foremost challenge for the Internet of Things,” he said. “But we know how to do this. In aviation and the military, critical functionality is effectively locked down as embedded software and isolated from the outside world. And systems are engineered so that if connectivity fails, critical functionality continues.”

So far, however, Sillitto said, such advanced capabilities generally are not being applied to the IoT. “You have people leaping in without experience in high-criticality and high-integrity systems,” he said. “So the best safeguard is to rely on producers who can deliver simple, robust, high-integrity, core elements that the IoT developers can assemble Lego-style. Indeed, this is the path we must follow, because if we don’t design resilience and security into the IoT from ground zero, it’ll be virtually impossible to design it in later.”

What Sillitto refers to as “core elements” include components of both IoT devices and the networks they use to communicate. Here again, mobile industry leaders are working to facilitate secure IoT transmissions over existing cellular and Wi-Fi networks, while advancing next-generation hybrid standards like 5G, which aims to build significant intelligence, agility and security directly into global networks.


Qualcomm’s Fournier points out that pushing network and device intelligence, including artificial intelligence, closer to the individual user will have the added benefit of supporting truly personalized experiences. “We are doing personalization now, but the recommendations (users receive) are not really personal,” Fournier said. “It depends on big companies like Google or Amazon pulling massive amounts of data into the cloud, then grinding through predictive analytics on aggregate data that then spits out ‘personalized’ recommendations. Moving data collection and intelligent processing, including artificial intelligence, right next to the user means we will be able to make recommendations based on an individual user’s personal context, in real time. In essence, it’s like giving each person a sixth sense and responding to them as if through a sixth sense.”

Ko Min Min did not benefit from any such technology-enabled sixth sense. His treatment was successful in large part because he was visited at home twice a day by a UNITAID-funded health care worker who ensured that he took his medicines. One day, perhaps, the IoT will produce digital companions that can watch over patients, stop drug-resistant strains of diseases before they appear and enable treatments that continually adapt to each patient in their personal context, bringing a sure and swift recovery to all.

Learn how Vitality’s GlowCap reminds you to take your medication:

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