can M2M solve the healthcare cost crisis?

Rising healthcare costs are well documented, with both the OECD and the World Bank showing its inexorable growth, both in terms of per capita and as a proportion of GDP. These increasing costs are being driven by ageing populations and more widespread chronic illness. It is a perfect storm, and health services across the globe must look for ways to reduce expenditure without negatively impacting the people who rely on them.

Technology promises to help reduce healthcare costs while enhancing quality of care. Machine-to-machine (M2M) has a crucial part to play in the technology mix and its sheer flexibility across the healthcare and wellness spectrum is part of its appeal.

M2M can be used in many healthcare applications from monitoring chronic conditions, through post-operative care, to consumer devices that encourage individuals to maintain generally good personal health standards and wellness.

demand vs technology

For M2M to succeed in healthcare applications, the technology has to meet certain requirements. These include: excellent quality and reliable communications in both very local wireless and national-and international cellular networks; small, robust and user-proof hardware; excellent battery life; reliable, secure data storage; speedy, meaningful big data analytics, and guaranteed data security. Progress is being made on all these fronts, with vertical and horizontal alliances speeding the work along.

The Medical Body Area Network (MBAN) is a term used to define a wireless network of devices on or in the body. The BAN is applicable to areas other than health, but has great application in this sector which often relies on multiple information points to monitor a patient.

Body worn, and even ingested, sensors able to gather information and transmit it either to a hospital bed or further away have huge potential. The ability of such systems to trigger automatic actions, such as issuing alerts to contact a medical professional or even making such contact automatically have clear preventative healthcare uses.

One way to help reduce healthcare costs is to keep people living in their own homes for longer. Research carried out by Orange has shown that 73% of senior citizens in Europe would feel more secure with a ‘teleassistance’ tool which could detect falls and call for help. M2M can be crucial here, with solutions like motion detectors in chairs and beds able to send alerts after periods of non-movement – or movement – already used in some markets.

We have only seen the very beginning of the rise of M2M in healthcare. ABI has predicted massive growth to more than 5 million disposable MBAN sensors shipping by 2018. And even this is a tiny fraction of the potential.

Meanwhile Machina Research has forecast a global installation of 847 million M2M connected health devices by 2023, generating revenues of $91 billion. North America will be the largest sector for M2M during this period with 386 million M2M devices in 2023. In size terms Europe and the developed Asia-Pacific will follow. This number spans the range of clinical remote monitoring, connected medical environments, personal health monitoring and improved assisted living monitoring.

“In a country like the US, with healthcare spending nearing 20% of national GDP, M2M technology may well provide the single most promising approach to expanding healthcare services in a cost effective manner,” says Andy Castonguay, Principal Analyst with Machina Research

new business models

New technologies are notoriously expensive, and tend only to be available to wealthy early adopters. It is only with mass market development and commoditization that prices become competitive. However, in order for M2M technologies to be cost efficient for the health sector, they need to be affordable.

Collaboration in development can be crucial to price management. The GSM Association points out in its February 2014 report From concept to delivery: the M2M market today, that the development of horizontal service platforms are crucial in “ improving service delivery, reducing support costs and scaling the market.”  

So, to promote success in the M2M health sector, alliances need to be both broad and deep. Operator alliances across geographies are as important as hardware and data provider alliances.

Apple’s HealthKit, expected to launch with iOS 8 and the new iPhone imminently, is according to Reuters rumoured to centre on a data hub accessible to both individuals and healthcare professionals. Reuters notes that Apple has partnerships with Nike, Epic and the Mayo Clinic.

Open systems can also help accelerate development. Samsung’s recent announcement of its Simband sensor and SAMI open data platform along with the opening of its Digital Health Innovation Lab at  University of California, San Francisco is a very public statement from a major mobile technology player that it believes in the future of M2M and wishes to help speed it along.

squaring the data security circle

Data security will be a key challenge for providers. Data breaches quite rightly get huge media coverage. Both health providers and consumers will need to be 100% confident that medical data is secure. Unfortunately, security breaches in areas like online shopping and banking could tarnish the M2M health solutions sector by association. Personal data is personal data, after all, and people are right to be cautious. To meet their potential, M2M healthcare services must start – and continue to develop – without suffering data breaches.

This requires security solutions which are more complex than those traditionally used in business. They need to ensure that all nodes in what could be a complex, multi-device system are secure and technical standards are met. In addition national data protection legislation needs to cover M2M and healthcare provider policies need to encompass it.

not if, but when

There are many hurdles for the nascent M2M health sector to overcome. And it will overcome them. Demands on health services are simply not sustainable at current levels, and through sheer necessity traditional models of healthcare need to be revised and reinvented.  As the benefits become apparent healthcare providers and patients will both reap the rewards.

Find out more about Orange Healthcare, our division that focuses on using our communications and integration expertise to make joined-up healthcare delivery, including M2M, a reality.