The proliferation of IoT devices connected by 5G is transforming virtually every industry by connecting businesses, environments, and customers with non-stop streams of information. Perhaps no industry has adopted IoT more aggressively than healthcare, as it streamlines operations, monitors patients, and provides remote care. To combat the pandemic, however, we need even more interconnectedness between health care professionals and their patients. Still, even as we fight the current battle, it is important that the healthcare industry adopts stringent privacy and protection practices for highly confidential and sensitive patient data and services.  

A case for greater interconnectedness

As our NHS heroes face enormous new challenges during the pandemic, IoT and 5G technologies have helped them respond.

As with many other sectors, healthcare is using IoT to streamline daily operations. For example, IoT enables hospitals to better track the state of beds and patients. Not only can it help identify the nearest supporting nurse or physician for a patient, but also alert staff when beds are free for a new patient. By replacing manual paperwork, patients’ waiting time can be cut in half, which improves both effectiveness of treatment and patient dignity.

IoT and 5G also improve the quality of care by giving doctors access to more accurate and complete data. Devices now monitor bodily function, regardless of location, so the doctors can assess the patients’ health, even when not in the office. Whether it’s a change in blood pressure, insulin levels, or oxygenation, a member of staff can be alerted, and contact the patient before they themselves even know something’s changed. Not only do the devices help alert medical staff to health risks, but the constant stream of data enables them to track trends in the patient’s health. Increasingly, at-risk individuals are adding IoT devices to everything from pill bottles to home appliances to furniture to provide an even more holistic picture of the state of the patient and how they are functioning in their environment. Instant alerts and more data mean better care.

Better connectivity supports a rise in telemedicine, allowing patients to access medical expertise without having to travel. Home-bound patients with underlying health conditions can connect with their doctors remotely. Since the doctor has the information from the connected devices, many checkups need not happen in person. Furthermore, remote connectivity allows a patient to see a specialist without gruelling long-distance travel. This will not only improve the quality of life for the patients, reduce their risk of going to a medical facility, and ease the strain on hospitals. By lowering the challenge of getting a medical consultation, at-risk individuals can address issues before complications develop.

Finally, aggregating data of potentially hundreds and thousands of patients holds great potential in improving health care. A collection of data can both help better understand and combat pandemics like COVID-19 and detect and quell future pandemics. The data can also be used to track, diagnose, and treat broader health issues that affect our population. More information helps provide better care for our patients.

The risks of modernisation 

As the healthcare sector adopts new technology and data to help patients, it must ensure that it protects patients from outages, errors, and privacy violations.

Health care organisations must protect the technology infrastructure they now depend on to run their hospitals. Among the most dangerous threats is ransomware. Since 2016, Comparitech reports that nearly 1500 healthcare organisations have been attacked, affecting over 6 million patients. Hospitals need a robust ransomware protection solution so that patients are not held hostage by these attacks.

Even as they save their lives, medical institutions also need to protect their patients’ privacy. With so many devices, hospitals must manage “small data sprawl”, a process whereby data is spread outside a single location, which increases the risk of possible data leaks. Whilst such data may be spread across multiple locations, it still needs to meet the same standards of data protection as a data centre. This means that not only do the streams of data need to be backed up in case of error but that personal health information (PHI) cannot be stored in insecure locations. Laptops, tablets, and cloud have been the source of leaked (PHI) information, so they must be both protected and scanned.

Healthcare organisations must also manage access permissions to central pools of information. While the centralised information is vital to current and future treatments, people’s information must be anonymised, and medical professionals must be authorised to access the information. Therefore, it becomes critical to not only set up clear access permissions but also tracking for unusual data access patterns.

Protecting modern healthcare data 

While IoT and 5G will transform healthcare, they require equally innovative solutions to protect the patients’ health and privacy. As a baseline, healthcare organisations should comply with stringent legislation such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). As technology evolves, traditional data protection methods simply cannot scale to meet this need.

Organisations will need to adopt cloud to protect modern healthcare data. First, cloud provides offsite data protection, so that the backups will be safe from ransomware attacks. Instead of having to give into the cyber criminals, hospitals can restore their applications from the cloud. Second, cloud allows businesses to seamlessly manage their data from one central location because it can connect to IoT devices and consolidate the data protection. Third, cloud enables healthcare professionals to access healthcare records and data because it offers the scale to hold and process vast amounts of data on demand. Finally, with the power and analytics capabilities in the cloud, organisations can detect unusual data access patterns and validate that only the right people are accessing patients’ most private information.

Even the most beneficial technology comes with risks. As we fight a pandemic, treat at-risk patients, and support an ageing population, we need to adopt new technology. IoT and 5G will transform healthcare for the next generation, but to support that transformation, we need to protect the new environment. With more cyber threats, chances of errors, and privacy risks, data protection must evolve. Only a cloud-based solution can connect to all the IoT devices, store large volumes of data, manage safe and high-performance access, and enable physicians to rapidly analyse the information. Data protection needs to support our healthcare heroes, by giving them the tools and information they need to put patients first.