Connecting the Internet of Things (IoT) in health care saves lives worldwide

Global health care's powerful new ally is the Internet of Things (IoT): See how connection, biometrics, and data sharing save lives in developing countries.

Woman holds child, while a second woman looks at phone

Ken Micallef

October 25, 2022

min read
  • The Internet of Things (IoT) is being used to address systemic obstacles that prevent equitable access to healthcare.

  • By using smart tools, health-care providers are able to streamline workflows and provide better service on frontlines.

  • Two revolutionary innovations in IoT in health care include using biometric data to access medical records after climate disasters and the ability to monitor vaccine storage remotely to prevent dosage losses.

IoT in health care Simprints’ technology
Simprints’ technology, used here in Uganda, gives more precise and effective provision of essential health services in low-resource settings. Image courtesy of Simprints.

As access to health care has increased worldwide, so has the gap in health equity—both in terms of access and quality of services.

The factors contributing to this systemic issue are complex, but what is taken for granted in more developed nations—food availability, clean water and environments, access to vaccines, and preventative care—often meets with insurmountable obstacles. Likewise, technologies that are common in some corners of the world—cloud computing, mobile technology, social media, and the Internet of Things (IoT)—are being harnessed to address health challenges in low- to middle-income countries in remarkable ways.

What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

IoT refers to “smart” devices that use sensors to gather data and can communicate with each other. Examples of everyday smart devices include baby monitors, watches, thermostats, and more. By the end of 2022, 14.4 billion “things” are expected to be connected globally.

How can IoT be used in health care?

IoT in health care Simprints' fingerprint scanners
Simprints’ low-cost, rugged fingerprint scanners enable frontline health-care workers to accurately track large numbers of patients in developing countries, such as Kenya. Image courtesy of Simprints.

It’s not a huge leap to imagine that equipping health-care providers with smarter tools could help bridge the health-equity gap that spans continents. IoT devices can streamline workflows and aid caregivers and patients on the front lines. Health-care providers are already vaccinating, diagnosing, and treating for preventable chronic health conditions more quickly than ever before, in large part due to the use of IoT technology.

A leader in applying IoT technology to global health is Cambridge, England–based nonprofit Simprints, which deploys a biometric fingerprint solution in populations affected by climate-related disasters. Simprints’ technology enables access to health care and other life-saving services through the company’s ID system, which is tailored for scarred, worn, and damaged fingerprints typical of “last-mile” beneficiaries.

“We provide an easy and accurate link across time between people and whatever medical record the organization we’re working with is linking them to,” says Christine Kim, Simprints’ director of strategic partnerships. “We’re a biometric play in this huge global problem of being unable to know who it is you’re reaching—and who’s falling through the cracks.”

When working within current systems, health-care organizations and nonprofits must confirm the identity of the patient and any illnesses requiring treatment, which means accessing accurate health records—with or without a recognized form of ID. Streamlining these practices via IoT enables quicker, confirmed patient registrations and identification; correct treatment applications; and, hopefully, healthier outcomes. This increases access to basic care, such as prenatal checkups and immunizations.

Using IoT to reach health frontlines

“We work offline; that’s a key reason why we’re able to work in low-resource settings that don’t have ready Wi-Fi or a ready network signal,” Kim says. “We rely on the Internet of Things to make our system work.”

Simprints plugs into existing mobile-data collection platforms, and according to Kim, many organizations already have frontline and health workers who use data-collection apps on their smartphones. “When a frontline worker uses Simprints to biometrically enroll and identify a beneficiary, she’s using Simprints offline,” Kim says. “An anonymous unique ID generated from a fingerprint template is transferred from the scanner to the phone. Once she has an Internet signal, she can sync that to the cloud.”

Simprints currently works in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, partnering with organizations such as BRAC in Bangladesh, UNICEF in Nigeria, and with the Ministry of Education in Afghanistan. “We’ve been approached by 150 different organizations that need this kind of technology to track beneficiaries worldwide,” Kim says. “All our data is stored in the Google Cloud; we comply with EU data-protection and privacy standards, which are the strictest in the world.”

Monitoring vaccine storage remotely through IoT

IoT in health care Nexleaf's ColdTrace device
Nexleaf’s ColdTrace device monitors vaccine refrigerators in isolated and rural areas. Image courtesy of Nexleaf Analytics.

Another nonprofit, Los Angeles–based Nexleaf Analytics, is focused on sensor and data technologies, with the aim of using the information to improve global health-care interventions and systems.

“One challenge facing the global vaccination sector is a lack of visibility into a system’s performance,” says Nexleaf Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Martin Lukac. One solution Nexleaf offers, a low-cost sensor called ColdTrace, is designed to monitor vaccine refrigerators in rural or isolated areas.

ColdTrace uploads performance data to our cloud servers in real time,” Lukac says. “ColdTrace turns an ordinary vaccine fridge into a ‘smart’ fridge that communicates with the central system and can even call for help if vaccine doses are in danger of being damaged by extreme temperature exposure.”

This directly addresses a common problem—inadequate vaccine storage—that affects the efficacy of both the vaccines themselves and the supply chain, including government bodies and international organizations. World Health Organization (WHO) data shows that immunization prevents 4 to 5 million deaths every year—which could increase significantly if more vaccines could be transported, stored, and delivered effectively.

IoT in health care A nurse receives a ColdTrace alert
A nurse receives a ColdTrace alert directly to her smartphone. Image courtesy of Nexleaf Analytics.

“Over 12,000 of Nexleaf’s ColdTrace 5 devices are deployed across 11 states in India as part of its electronic Vaccine Intelligence Network,” Lukac says. “Our devices are also deployed across multiple provinces in Mozambique. In Kenya, ColdTrace is currently monitoring multiple district-level vaccine storage facilities. Ministries of health can use the ColdTrace data dashboard to check vaccine-fridge status at any ColdTrace-equipped health facility in real time, and fridges equipped with ColdTrace can alert health systems-personnel whenever vaccine doses are in danger.”

These real-time text-message alerts provoke responses that can save the vaccines, such as checking the latch on the fridge door or turning on a backup generator. “Our data shows that, when vaccine fridges call for help, nurses take action to protect vaccines,” Lukac says. “Text alerts alone reduced vaccine freezing in health clinics by 74 percent.”

IoT in health care can help address resource challenges globally

Working in this sphere requires coordinated efforts, which makes it a perfect match with IoT. “IoT and sensor technologies have an incredible potential to overcome resource and infrastructure challenges in low-income countries,” says Nexleaf Philanthropic Relations Coordinator Natalie Evans. “By listening to the needs of these countries and of individual users, we can design, iterate, and deploy effective and affordable solutions for some of the biggest challenges our planet faces: preservation of the environment, generation of adequate food, and protection against deadly disease.”

Market Research Future forecasts the connected health-care market to reach $320 billion by 2027. The COVID-19 pandemic increased the usage of remote technology to diagnose patients and monitor vaccine refrigeration. Using data to inform these solutions increases their reach and effectiveness—elevating health care to a human right to be enjoyed by all.

Recognizing the urgent need to generate solutions for people working and living in remote areas of the planet, the Autodesk Foundation is helping companies like Nexleaf and Simprints bring radical improvements through smarter, more sustainable design.

This article has been updated. It originally published in November 2018.

Ken Micallef

About Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef is a New York–based writer and photographer.

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