We love to complain about the ills of our screen-addictions. From ceaseless texting leading to distracted driving, to those viral images (ironically, so popular on social media) of groups of young people meeting up only to stare down at their phones, never speaking, mobile tech is an easy target for griping. But the body of evidence is growing around smart devices–phones, as well as wearables–being the biggest thing in healthcare since hand-washing.

People and Things Have a Healthy Relationship

The universe of “smart” devices–watches, phones, home appliances, even houses–comprises what we now call the Internet of Things, or IoT. When these Things have a healthcare-specific application, as so many now do, then they become the Medical IoT.

While policy-makers bicker over how to turn medicine into more of a free market experiment, and doctors (or at least, physician’s groups) complain that technology is getting in the way of good old fashioned doctor-patient communication, the Internet of Things is hovering over the healthcare industry like that spaceship in Independence Day above the White House. The goal isn’t wholesale destruction, but disruption seems guaranteed.

What is already possible with new mass-market toys and tools is changing the expectations of consumers; what these possibilities promise for the future is tilting expectations even further. Technology, not policy, is literally gearing up to transform American healthcare from the outside in.

While much ado is made about the bureaucratic overreach sucking the joy as well as the sustainability out of modern medicine, the real revolution isn’t a deliberate, top-down approach to updating. Nor is “power to the consumers” manifesting as more people suddenly understanding EoBs, shopping across state lines for insurance, or asking their providers for bids before scheduling an appointment or seeing a specialist.

People-power is coming from the same things that drove the Dot Com craze of the late 90s, and the social media explosion of the new millennium. In short: information, and personalization.

Machine-Driven, Patient-Focused

The IoT–and the medical IoT especially–is blending what people loved most about both the early Internet, and the early iterations of virtually every popular social platform. They get to do things, learn things, search things, and generally drive a zeitgeist that is completely unparalleled in any other context, and unprecedented entirely. Not only that, but they get to do it in a way that is individually-driven: wearables don’t warn users about broad population data suggesting there are too many obese people in their city–they tell each user how many steps he got; how many carbs, calories, and sugars she ate today; whether he tossed and turned all night, or managed to get real REM sleep; and whether she needs to be worried that she inherited her paternal side’s high cholesterol and hypertension.

In short, even without FDA approval or a doctor’s orders, people are happily studying their own wellness through wearables. They are making personal care a social subject, a bonding experience, a fun fact to share right alongside employment or relationship status. And the more this happens, the harder developers are working to make their devices smarter, more accurate, easier to use, more seamlessly connected to user’s phones, profiles, and ultimately, their health records.

We talk a big game in America about leading and innovating, especially in healthcare. But the reality is, healthcare is big, sprawled, caught up in a public-private tug-of-war, and about as resistant to major cultural change as any 20th century corporation or government agency. Nevertheless, there is a solid entrepreneurial spirit persisting in the medical field, and it can be best identified today by looking for the providers, practices, and hospitals who are getting out in front of the IoT trend and finding ways to meet their patients where they now live, screen out the devices and gimmickry that undermines the healthcare mission, and create new ways to make technology a partner, rather than an obstacle, to patient engagement.

There is no current best practice for providers to study and integrate regarding the IoT. The technology is too young, and too prone to rapid, dynamic change. What’s more, patients and consumers are still figuring out how these devices fit in on their end. The encouraging thing in all of this uncertainty is that neither stakeholder group is waiting around for payers or government watchdogs to set the standard on the applications of the medical IoT. People from all walks of life and professional backgrounds are taking a page out of the Silicon Valley playbook: iterate, iterate, iterate.

What are they iterating? That’s the best news of all: new ways to make technology serve the patient-physician relationship. The winners of the current arms race in IoT development, sales, and utilization will be the ones who put providers and patients at the center, rather than the periphery. The cause for excitement is that the IoT will start more conversations, not shorten them, interrupt them, or automate them.

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