The Internet of Things is dramatically reshaping customer experience in many industries, but healthcare has more or less avoided the conversation: Data and privacy limitations make it harder to imagine true disruption. But that’s changing.

Jeff Gourdji, Prophet partner and healthcare lead, sits down with Altimeter founder Charlene Li and industry analyst Ed Terpening, co-authors of the new Smart Places: The Digital Transformation of Location, to find out what we can expect.

How is IoT Changing Healthcare?

Jeff: What’s IoT’s potential in healthcare?

Ed: Enormous, but there’s a lot that needs to change first. Every industry is looking at how to optimize online and offline (location) customer experience. Right now, patient portals—a fundamental part of online experience in healthcare–are mostly repositories for things like appointments and test results, and while there’s a great deal of data in healthcare ecosystems–and IoT offers plenty of ways to collect more–much of it is siloed. Healthcare will need to embrace systems that can make connections between data online and data that is collected on location, including medications, conditions, age, fitness and many other factors.

When that happens, the shift will be powerful. Doctors will be able to see warning signs, instead of waiting for a patient to get sick.

EpiWatch, an Apple Watch app, for example, helps people with epilepsy track the onset and duration of seizures. It alerts caregivers when a seizure starts, and eventually, developers think it will be able to predict them.

We’re still five or 10 years out, but we will eventually see “continuous connected care” delivered by tech-savvy institutions and increasingly expected of patients who want the data their IoT devices (Fitbits, Apple Watches) collect to inform their caregivers.

Jeff: Making patients less anxious about the healthcare experience is important, whether the worry is “What if I can’t find a parking space and miss my appointment?” or “What if I have cancer and what are they going to do to me next?”. How can IoT help?

Ed: IoT deployed on location can be very helpful in observing behavior to better serve patients. Retailers already use it to analyze a person’s gait to see if they are in a hurry. But in healthcare, that analysis has to go much deeper. Walking fast may mean someone could use help with navigation, and wearables could reveal a rapid heartbeat. But what does that person need next, once he finds the right waiting room? Would custom content help allay fears? Procedural information, about what will happen in each part of the visit? People like to know what to expect.  What better way to use wait time than use that it to review informational content and be informed in the moment, to know what questions to ask to decrease stress and increase confidence.

Jeff: Everyone hates waiting. Providers often ask you to show up two hours before a procedure. And when a hospital says, “We’re ready to let you go home,” it usually means a few hours more. What can help?

Charlene: We’ll see more checkout free experiences, like Amazon Go, and more automatic insurance verification. But really, waiting itself isn’t that stressful– it’s not knowing why we’re waiting, or for how long, that drives people crazy. Look at how effective apps for Uber and city transit systems are—it is much easier to wait for your ride when you can see its route, and you know it really is 11 minutes away. Transparency is very helpful.

IoT can also ease wait times by speeding up operations. Shelf-tracking technology in pharmacies, for example, can speed checkout. Or IoT can track gurneys and mobile hospital beds so staff can find them fast. Patients won’t see that technology, but it will cut waiting times.

And tracking key performance indicators will help operations be more efficient and allow for redesigned workflow. Then providers can use data to decide whether patients still need to come two hours early. Maybe it could be cut down to 90 minutes, or less.

Jeff: Navigation is a hassle. My GPS gets me to the hospital parking lot, but after that, I’m lost. How far are we from being able to help?

Ed: The technology is there. Retailers use lighting, audio and beacon systems to know where shoppers are all the time, recognizing people within three meters. Wouldn’t it be helpful to get an alert if you got in the wrong elevator bank at the hospital?

Jeff: What kinds of hospitals are most likely to adopt IoT?

Ed: The ones that are willing to start small and avoid the paralysis that comes with big technology changes. I haven’t seen any industry embrace IoT with a big bang. They test and learn. The Home Depot has a single store in Georgia where it experiments. At my local university hospital, I’ve noticed each department uses a different record system and a different portal–everyone is experimenting. Often, companies that are the most digital in their origins, like eyewear maker Warby Parker, are the most aggressive in their physical store experimentation. And while you might think larger hospitals under the greatest competitive pressure would be the most motivated, they’re also cash-strapped, so they are doing less.

Charlene: I’d like to add that healthcare providers are looking for meaningful improvements, not just expense cutting. IoT technology is a significant investment, especially for large hospitals. IoT Beacons need to be in every hallway. Justifying the immediate payoff is hard. But take voice-recognition–that’s gaining in importance, because doctors are so burdened by the electronic records. Amazon Web Services already offers a product that listens in on business conference calls and can be asked to reserve a room for the next meeting, control audio/visual equipment in the room, and so on. Imagine an auto-assistant that could chime in and say, “OK, I’ll order that MRI for you.”

Jeff: What changes can we expect in health-focused retail, with a chain like CVS?

Charlene: Right now, stores don’t recognize me until I am checking out. With geolocation, if I’ve agreed to it, I could get a message that reminds me I have a prescription waiting, or that I need a flu shot. The big question for better experiences is “How can I recognize my known customers sooner?”

Jeff: Are there cultural obstacles?

Ed: There may be some. EHRs were supposed to help everybody, and they’ve become such a stumbling block. There may be a cultural hang-over, with people fearing that the next wave of “helpful” tech will just bring more problems and complexity. But providers use technology all the time, in their personal lives as well as at work. They love it. They are frustrated by the delays in healthcare, too.

Final Thoughts

The full research report, which includes use cases for IoT “smart places”, devices and the challenges and opportunities of this new wave of innovation, is available here. 

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  1. Thanks for a great brief on IoT. I particularly appreciated Jeff’s question about reducing anxiety. We can do plenty to add technology to improve process and business value. Keeping the emotional equivalent in mind is a necessary complement. Nice job, ladies and gentlemen.

    1. Sean, thank you for giving it a read and thank you for perspective. To your point, we’ve seen that “anxiety reduction first” can serve as a pretty good rule of thumb for health system patient experience innovation. Good food is nice, but timely communication of test results goes a lot further.