There is no stopping the digital transformation. In its sure and steady advance, it has permeated almost every aspect of modern life, including healthcare, which has now been taken to a whole new level of efficiency, accessibility, and personalization.
Already, doctors can pull up electronic patient records anytime and anywhere. With remote medical consultations, the boring wait at the doctor’s office is now a thing of the past. Wearables now exist that can monitor your vital signs and alert you of potential troubles before they become emergencies.
Taking it even further is the so-called Internet of Bodies, or IoB, one of the more exciting technologies to come out of this intersection of digitalization, biometrics, and healthcare.
The IoB refers to the interconnected network of wearable devices, implantable sensors, and other biometric technology that can collect physiological or behavioral data on the human body and share it with healthcare providers. These data can include vital signs, movements, sleep patterns, brain activity, and more. Clearly, it has the potential to revolutionize healthcare, wellness, and human performance.
By collecting real-time data on a person's health and behaviors, the IoB can detect anomalies at their very earliest stages, thereby giving doctors an unprecedented ability to nip disorders in the bud. Moreover, IoB also helps with compliance and prognosis as it empowers patients to track their own health and wellness, optimize their performance, and enhance their quality of life.
The IoB is already showing tremendous potential to upend the way we think about healthcare, offering new opportunities for preventative care, remote monitoring, and personalized medicine. Here are a few actual use cases:
Like many emerging technologies, the IoB is surrounded by a handful of thorny issues surrounding ethics and privacy.
Just who owns the data collected by IoB devices —the patient, the healthcare provider, or the company that developed the technology? Do patients retain sole rights to the data, or do they implicitly cede the rights to its use to the healthcare provider or the developer?
By way of illustration, an IoB wearable that monitors health data could very well also detect unhealthy behaviors, the reporting of which could result in health insurance companies denying coverage. A connected hearing aid could be a godsend for a partially deaf patient, but it could also record all sounds within earshot. What happens if such data leaks?
Moreover, IoB data can also be misused to discriminate against certain individuals in employment or insurance, as it can reveal sensitive information about a person's health and well-being.
Biometric data is highly personal and sensitive, and the potential for it to be misused or hacked cannot be overlooked. The risk of identity theft and fraud is yet another issue, as biometric data can be used to authenticate identities and access sensitive information.
To calm these concerns, patients must be reassured that they have full control over their data and that it is only shared with healthcare providers and other authorized parties with their explicit consent. Patients need to be apprised of exactly how their biometric data is being collected, used, and shared and should be given a chance to opt out at will.
Policymakers and healthcare providers must work hand-in-glove to develop clear guidelines and regulations around the collection, use, and sharing of biometric data.
Yet this could take some time. In the US, there is a lack of a single entity to provide meaningful governance for the new technology, despite the FDA and the US Department of Commerce appearing to be the de jure regulators. Currently, regulation is still being carried out through the ad hoc efforts of state and federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and consumer advocacy groups.
Even as the FDA is making serious headway in the cybersecurity of medical devices, many IoB devices, especially those available for consumer use, do not fall within the ambit of the FDA. While federal and state officials have begun to address cybersecurity risks associated with IoB that are beyond FDA oversight, there are few laws that mandate cybersecurity best practices.
Clearly, the creation of an oversight and regulation body for IoB should be a top legislative priority.
The mainstreaming of IoB is only a matter of time. The technology’s potential benefits in healthcare are too great to ignore, despite the pitfalls. Biometric technology can seriously improve patient outcomes, reduce healthcare costs, and create a more personalized and preventative approach to healthcare.
It is imperative to find that path where the power of IoB is leveraged while still respecting patients' privacy and agency over their data.