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Smart Innovations to Enhance Citizens' Health Care, Quality of Life

Smart cities can take advantage of the Internet of Things to make health-care innovations a reality.

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- At the 2015 Fourth International SMART Conference held last week, experts presented 19 technical papers on various uses of smart technology, sensors and other specialized technologies to optimize the use of energy, control pollution, and enhance health, well-being and accessibility for the elderly and those with disabilities.  

Smart technology is not only about making life more convenient, it is also thought to be especially helpful toward self-management of health care, as well as giving the elderly, the chronically ill and persons with disabilities an enhanced quality of life.

Such innovations as personal mobility vehicles, driving control in city traffic, geolocators for those with mental health issues, and transportation enhancements for the visually impaired are a few examples of how smart technologies are being applied to health care in urban areas. And the ever-growing Internet of Things is making such applications in health care a reality.

“With the flow of more people into cities, the demand for health care is increased,” said Renata Souza, a Ph.D. researcher who presented a paper on the use of geolocation apps to improve health and well-being.

Also urging the development of smart technology in health care is the growth of the aging population -- people are living longer, often with chronic conditions, impairments and disabilities that require individualized health care.

Due to earlier detection and treatment, more people are also surviving and living with what were once thought to be terminal illnesses, such as cancer. As such, health-care costs have ballooned, and governments and health-care organizations are hard-pressed to come up with novel uses for smart technology to promote disease prevention and patient self-management, and remotely monitor patients.

“Today, most GP [general practitioner] practices and hospitals are digitized and computerized; however, these individual computer systems are often incapable of 'talking' to or sharing digital information with other computer systems,” Souza explained. “Therefore, medical records in a local GP’s computer will have to be printed, faxed or scanned and emailed to the specialist at the district hospital.  Results of scans, laboratory tests and examinations will also need to be in hard copy format for the patient to transmit and hand-carry back to the GP or specialist for interpretation.”

Enter cloud computing, which Souza said enables health-care providers to access a patient’s medical records no matter where the health-care provider is geographically located. Some smart technologies currently undergoing trial promise to enable virtual consultations -- patients will no longer need to travel to and from a specialist hospital for consultation or follow-up, or to wait for hours to see a specialist.

With the proliferation of FitBit, Garmin Vivofit and JawBone UP (among many others), wearable tech shows much promise in the health-care space. Devices in this space can monitor, record and store blood pressure, heart rate and breath rate, and even measure blood glucose levels over a period of time, allowing for a deeper understanding of a patient’s actual condition day-to-day instead of simply taking isolated measurements at each doctor visit.  

As an example, smart technology has transformed pedometers from mere wearable monitors to data-collection devices by which health-care provision is not only individualized, but it is also increasingly preventative. While pedometers have long been available on the market, what makes modern pedometers “smart” is that the pedometers not only record the daily physical exercise of a diabetic patient, it can also interpret the intensity and amount of activity by computing the corresponding calories burned and sending a recommended menu to the patient via a text message.

Souza warns, however, that, although "there is no doubt these smart technologies help the elderly and persons with chronic conditions and disabilities to become more mobile and have a better quality, the dangers that can result from improper or inappropriate use of personal information gathered by these smart technologies needs to be considered.”

For instance, geo-locators, which may be used to find a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia if they have roamed off, may also be used to victimize that person. Medical information gathered and stored in the cloud may be divulged or disclosed without one’s knowledge or consent. The one fear invoked by smart technology is the possible violation of one’s right to privacy and security.

Smart technology is a double-edged sword. It cuts through the inconveniences of modern living, but it may also render users vulnerable because it potentially exposes health information to possible abuse. There is no doubt that smart technologies work. There is no doubt that they will make health care more efficient, which is why they will be made increasingly available and affordable. But will smart technology for health care be embraced? The acceptability of smart technology hinges upon the assurance that the security and privacy of health information gathered through the use of these smart devices will be respected and protected.  

“The acceptability of smart technology hinges upon the assurance that the security and privacy of health information gathered through the use of these smart devices will be respected and protected,” Souza said.