While historically there have been various reasons for rapid technological progress in the life sciences sector, the latest one is the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and the increased need for remote services. A growing number of life sciences organizations are now aggressively looking to telehealth solutions fueled by the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) technologies to reduce costs, improve patient outcomes, and keep workers safe.
In the IoT and IoMT era, ultrafast connectivity means that a wide range of medical devices and equipment can be connected to a server or the cloud. As a result, telemedicine technology can make excellent use of real-time data to drive higher-quality remote patient care and health outcomes.
Life sciences organizations have a unique and pressing opportunity to expand their digital strategies as the world has realized the unlimited potential of technology to improve lives—now from afar. Due to the pandemic, nearly quadruple the number of U.S. consumers are now using telehealth, which led to approximatelyone billion virtual telehealth visits last year.
Clearly, there are abundant opportunities that IoT, IoMT, and telehealth solutions can deliver to the life sciences sector. According to a new market research report, IoT in the healthcare market is expected to grow to $322.2 billion by 2025. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has further spurred investment in artificial intelligence (AI) with 56% of executives reporting that they have accelerated or expanded their AI deployment timelines in response to the public health crisis. Executives went on to say that the greatest positive impact of their investment in AI will be improving health outcomes and the patient experience.
Whether a company is well ahead of the IoT and telehealth curve or embarking on their first IoT project, achieving successful outcomes is critical to long-term viability and profitability in the future. We see four macro-level trends at the forefront of the telehealth movement, representing critical opportunities for life science companies to capture in order to fuel growth and profitability.
Workforce at the Center of Telehealth Evolution
There is increasing concern across the industry about the shortage of skills needed to deploy IoT/IoMT solutions and the risk that this challenge will hamper market growth. Traditionally, the life sciences and medical technology (MedTech) workforce has been focused on electrical and mechanical engineering and product development driven by large traditional sales forces.
Today and for the near future, these sectors require high-level skills in digital, advanced data analytics, and machine learning, and a workforce that is educated and flexible. Yet, one of the biggest obstacles is that data scientists with advanced degrees and training in match, statistics, and/or computer science and experience in data mining and data visualization are highly sought-after skills.
Meanwhile, there is growing evidence of an emerging skill-shortage affecting the life sciences and MedTech industries. Several research studies point to the growing skills gap as one of the greatest challenges for these sectors. For example, one research study found that although 79% of respondents believe their company is “very well” or “reasonably well” prepared to build digital capability within their organization, only 22% of all respondents selected “recruiting top digital talent” as one of their top three priorities for better utilizing the data generated from connected medical devices.
Certainly, mergers and acquisitions can assist larger companies to recruit the technology and digital talent they need. However, partnerships and collaborations with workforce and staffing partners who specialize in the life sciences sector can also be instrumental in ensuring that an organization’s skills and talent strategy are successful.
While the life sciences sector is expected to benefit immensely from IoT and IoMT technologies to fuel telehealth initiatives, the lack of skills to deploy IoT/IoMT solutions could also constrain market growth. The addition of IoT/IoMT devices makes network management more difficult for healthcare IT teams as they deal with increased complexity. In a recent Accenture survey, 70% of respondents agreed that healthcare providers and clinicians are not ready to utilize the data generated from connected medical devices.
Life sciences organizations will need to create an innovative, flexible digital culture in order to recruit and retain the digital talent needed to build the data-centered services that will drive value for patients, providers, and their own companies in the future.
Growing Adoption of Virtual Clinical Trials
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to introduce disruptive changes to the way physicians deliver care to patients, yet it also has influenced how clinical trials are now being conducted. Talks about virtual clinical trials have echoed the halls of life science and pharma companies for years; however, prior to the pandemic, these were mere whispers.
Today, those talks have quickly turned from whispers to shouting through a megaphone. COVID-19 has forced sponsors and companies to rapidly increase their use of virtual trials with the FDA releasing guidelines for conducting virtual trials to streamline the process.
Importantly, the growing adoption of virtual trials isn’t solely fueled by regulators and drug companies. It is also being catapulted into mainstream practice by the increasing acceptance of participants. In fact, according to a recent report, data shows that patients still want to participate in clinical trials during the pandemic, with the vast majority supporting an increase in telehealth services and digital solutions.
This may be due in large part to the fact that remote patient monitoring is proving to be an effective approach to clinical trials while subjects are able to remain in the comfort of their homes. Many clinical trials face similar challenges, such as adherence to protocol, participants losing interest, or dropping out completely due to logistical difficulties. However, with virtual monitoring, study participants can reduce their in-office visits, monitor their readings at home, share them remotely with stakeholders, and receive reminders that help keep participants engaged and on track
Data Challenges Continue to Exist with Telehealth
While patients have shown an interest in participating in virtual trials, the issue of information security and privacy remains a challenge when patients can choose their own devices for utilization—smartphones, wearables, laptops, portals—and the data they share is accessible to many stakeholders.
Cybersecurity issues are, or should be, top of mind for life science companies, particularly when it relates to developing and deploying telehealth solutions over IoT/IoMT technologies. However, recruiting skilled cybersecurity talent is difficult, and the global cyber-talent shortage is making it challenging for companies to stay abreast of even the basics of cybersecurity—never mind the mammoth task of evaluating the security implications of digital transformation.
For example, CyberSeek, a project funded by the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, reported last year that the U.S. faces a shortfall of nearly 314,000 cybersecurity professionals, putting the global gap at four million. The talent shortage is more than just a thorn in the side for life sciences companies. Another recent survey of IT decision-makers across eight countries found that 71% believed this talent gap causes direct and measurable damage to their organizations.
Exposure to insider threats and ransomware attacks is a risk that life sciences organizations continually face; however, when you take into account the emerging threat from IoT/IoMT devices and the reality that digital transformation requires external partners and vendors to access your IT systems and data, a perfect cyber-storm is looming around the corner. And there isn’t enough skilled talent to defend it.
Best Practice Adherence Can Fuel Success
There are a number of paths to success when adopting and deploying IoT solutions to support the rapid move to telehealth. Adhering to several fundamental practices can help to ensure that the end of the road is met with victories.
Assembling an interdisciplinary team.
Many life science organizations focus largely on building the technology workforce needed to drive IoT and telehealth solutions, and rightfully so. Technology talent is naturally inspired by technology—it is in their DNA. However, the most successful IoT and telehealth projects are transformational, so they impact how the entire company operates. Therefore, it is critical that all process owners have a part and say in the solution development effort.
Leading life science companies also go further to include clinicians and end users, particularly for solutions that ultimately impact patient care. Without this inclusive approach, many project leaders have a tunnel vision focus on the technical proof-of-concept and the initiative fails without a business driver or sponsor, leading to a disenchanted technology team, doubt about the technology itself, and a waste of valuable time and money.
Identifying a problem that IoT/telehealth can truly solve.
Another key factor that leads to greater success is an unwavering certainty that the technology can truly solve the problem. To facilitate this effort, team members must share their unique perspectives and ultimately agree on how success should and will be defined. This is where diversity of thought and background is truly vital.
Ideally, with a diverse team of stakeholders, begin by identifying and documenting key performance indicators, whiteboard workflows, survey key stakeholders, and take an inventory of expected improvements or savings. If the team’s expectations fit the capabilities of the technology, then you can be assured you have the right tools for the job.
Ensure cross-business unit collaboration.
No medical device company, pharmaceutical manufacturer, or biotech organization wants to spend money and time reinventing the wheel. However, with the widespread and rapid merger-and-acquisition activity within the life sciences sector, companies often are dealt with siloed people-building solutions. And, they frequently believe they are the only ones building an IoT platform or telehealth solution.
To avoid disparate efforts, companies will need to uncover and foster cross-business unit collaboration and standardization. This effort will provide an opportunity to pinpoint and/or build a foundational architecture for the whole organization that is much more consistent across all lines of business and functions. For example, embarking on one toolset, one skill set, and one training program can deliver reduced costs, enable greater employee mobility within the company, and lead to higher job satisfaction and lower turnover.
Embracing the New Paradigm
As an industry, healthcare and life science companies need to find more effective ways to help patients live healthier lives, and many are making exciting transformations to achieve that goal. In short, telehealth has become the new paradigm in healthcare, and now in life sciences. The latest innovations in IoT, IoMT, and telemedicine technologies are helping to keep patients connected, monitored, and cared for safely and effectively from afar.
Through careful navigation and consideration of key macro trends shaping the future of telehealth, life science leaders can steer their organizations towards a successful journey and outcome.