The Internet of Things (IoT) can help people do everything from adjusting their thermostats to controlling household appliances with your voice. While those tasks are important for making life more convenient, the IoT has the potential to do so much more, including stopping or minimizing the spread of infectious diseases.
Many IoT uses fall into a more specialized category of IoT technology called the Internet of Health Care Things (IoHT). For simplicity, it will be referred to as IoT in this article.
5 fascinating IoT developments in infectious disease management
1. Making predictions about flu season
Every autumn, healthcare professionals around the world gear up for the flu season. Preparing for it is typically a daunting task, but some new IoT devices may be able to provide insights about the flu that are not as easily available otherwise.
For example, smart thermometers that link to symptom tracking apps can be used to transmit relevant data, such as a person’s daily temperature or symptoms suggestive of flu to a user’s doctor. The doctor can use the data to gauge the likelihood that the patient has caught the flu and whether or not a medication might be helpful.
In addition, when this type of data is anonymized and aggregated, public health professionals may find it useful in making forecasts about the flu in various regions of the country. This type of data may provide more advanced notice of outbreaks than traditional methods. In one study, smart thermometers gave forecasts three weeks earlier than past methods.
2. Reducing the time to diagnoses
Sometimes, people are not aware that they are carrying an infectious disease because they either have no symptoms or they did not recognize the symptoms as something indicating an infection. This can lead them to spread the disease to their communities by merely going about their daily lives. One way in which IoT may help reduce this unintentional spread is by facilitating earlier diagnosis of the condition.
In Uganda, providers using an over-the-air system that works with an IoT SIM card and global IoT communications platform have diagnosed cases of tuberculosis in only three days. Previous methods required patients to wait about two months before getting their results. This improvement does not prevent the disease in the diagnosed person, but it can stop the individual from potentially spreading it to others while they are unaware that they are infectious.
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3. Enhancing care for people with Ebola
Even people who aren’t familiar with diseases have typically heard of the Ebola virus. It’s a disease transmitted when humans come in direct contact with infected animals, causing Ebola to spread rapidly throughout humans. In one outbreak in Guinea, the case-fatality ratio was 68.5 percent.
Although caregivers receive training before coming in contact with Ebola patients, they still make mistakes. For example, the first U.S-based case was a nurse who was treating an Ebola patient in a hospital. She removed her gloves, got bodily fluid on her hands then touched her face. However, IoT technology could help keep personnel safer.
Smart wearables could maintain such safeguards while improving the quality of care, too. For example, Ebola is a challenging disease for many reasons, but one is that doctors cannot use traditional diagnostic tools, such as thermometers and stethoscopes when caring for patients who have the disease. Now, one IoT device is available that acts like a “smart Band-Aid.” It sticks onto a patient’s sternum to take baseline readings of heart rate, temperature, and oxygen saturation. Thereafter, the device measures deviations from those initial statistics.
The data-transmitting functionality of the device allows physicians to monitor patients from afar, such as at a control center near a “hot zone” associated with an outbreak. The device lets caregivers see the conditions of all patients in a predetermined area who are wearing the patches, too.
There is no single way to stop Ebola from spreading among caregivers. But, the stick-on vital signs measurement method could be a step in the right direction that maintains safeguards without sacrificing the quality of care patients receive. The IoT has enhanced healthcare by improving patient monitoring, which is especially important when treating highly contagious individuals.
4. Ending the spread of water contamination
Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia associated with the Legionella bacteria. It affects up to five percent of people exposed to the bacteria. In rare cases, it can spread outside the respiratory system and affect the heart, kidneys anther crucial parts of the body.
The Legionella bacteria is water-loving and thrives in environments like hot tubs and cooling towers. The latter are used for climate control purposes are now so ubiquitous in urban landscapes that people hardly notice them. Even if they do, they probably don’t think of them as being potentially dangerous by carrying bacteria. Testing for Legionella in a cooling tower is not straightforward.
Preventative measures usually involve using concoctions of toxic chemicals to kill any Legionella that may be present. Those chemicals could pollute soil and groundwater, though, and cause threats to human health.
A more updated intervention involves using electric currents to kill bacteria. The entities that use that method often combine the technique with IoT measurement systems. They can track the overall efficiency of the cooling towers, verify that the bacteria-zapping technology is working as it should. It can also warn tower operators of any unusual conditions.
Since the data gathered by IoT equipment provides ongoing information, it’s more likely for people to notice problems quickly. TThis reduces the chance that the first sign of a Legionella problem is a sick patient.
5. Helping disease experts weigh In remotely
After an outbreak of an infectious disease occurs, the situation becomes a race against the clock to control the progression. However, understanding the extent of the disease often requires sending samples out for testing. If an outbreak happens in a remote area, the time it takes to get those samples analyzed and receive word back from experts could have devastating consequences.
However, IoT-enabled digital pathology microscopes permit that process to happen substantially faster than it would without that technology. Researchers made a prototype that bridges the gap between pathologists and physicians in the field by transmitting data to pathologists who may be hundreds to thousands of miles away from the site where a sample was collected.
For their project, the research team decided to tweak a commercial microscope to give it IoT capabilities instead of building something from scratch. Ultimately, they made three relatively simple modifications. Because the microscope was similar to scopes they were used to using, the pathologists’ learning curve was short. They could review slides as they usually do, even panning across sections of samples to look more closely at areas of interest.
More exciting developments on the horizon
This overview is a reminder that although IoT devices can make life easier for people who use them, they can also have significant benefits for communities or entire nations if we use them to control or monitor the spread of infectious diseases. As more experimentation occurs and technologies become even more advanced, the IoT will likely keep astounding people with its health-related capabilities.