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Forget The Internet Of Things. The Internet Of Bodies Is Here.

“After the Internet of Things, which transformed the way we live, travel and work by connecting everyday objects to the Internet, it’s now time for the Internet of Bodies,” writes the World Economic Forum, arguing we are on the cusp of a new age where a range of devices that can be “implanted, swallowed or worn”  collect the people’s physical data.

The resulting health-related data will give the owners of such data insights into human well-being around the world. The WEF acknowledges a “number of risks and challenges” that must be addressed to realize the potential of this technology, such as privacy issues to practical hurdles. 

The Internet of Bodies has already been deployed amid COVID-19. In certain wards of Shanghai’s Public Health Clinical Center, for example, nurses are using smart thermometers to check temperatures of COVID-19 patients.

The sensors record the temperature, and the data is sent to an observational dashboard. Abnormal results trigger an alert to the medical staff. The gathered data can then be used as medics to analyze trends.

VivaLNK, a Silicon-Valley based startup, designed the smart thermometers. They are a powerful example of the many digital products and services that are revolutionizing healthcare. 

The trend started with fitness trackers and other Internet of Things devices, and the WEF anticipates a litany of privacy, legal, and ethical issues. 

The Internet of Bodies has already taken hold all around us through wearable devices, such as smartwatches, which has grown into a $13 billion market by 2018, and is projected to increase another 32% to $18 billion by 2021. Smart toothbrushes and hairbrushes also let people track the patterns of their personal care and behavior.

The industry has implications for the health profession, too. The U.S. Federal Drug Administration in 2017 approved the use of digital pills in the United States. These digital pills contain tiny, ingestible sensors, and medicine. Once swallowed, the sensor is activated in the patient’s stomach and transmits data to a smart phone or other devices.

California healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente in 2018 started a virtual rehab program for patients recovering from heart attacks. The patients then shared their data with healthcare providers through a smartwatch, allowing for the better monitoring and a closer, more continuous relationship between patient and doctor. This innovation increased the completion rate of the program from less than 50% to 87%, accompanied by a fall in the readmission rate and program cost.

Such a maelstrom of data, collected through such technologies, advances an understanding of how human behavior, lifestyle, and environmental conditions affect our health. The notion of healthcare has thereby been expanded beyond hospitals and surgery, and, rather, into everyday life, such as tracking symptoms and detecting new cases of disease. Researchers already are investigating whether data gathered from smartwatches and similar devices can be used as viral infection alerts by tracking the user’s heart rate and breathing. 

Yet, the WEF sees issues with implementing these evolving technologies. 

In most countries, strict regulations exist around personal health information such as medical records and blood or tissue samples. However, these conventional regulations often fail to cover the new kind of health data generated through the Internet of Bodies, and the entities gathering and processing this data.

In the United States, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), represents a major law for health data regulation, but applies only to medical providers, health insurers, and their business associations. The definition of “personal health information” covers only the data held by these entities. 

WEF believes this definition is “inadequate for the era of the Internet of Bodies,” as tech companies are now also offering health-related products and services, and gathering data. The current regulations also only consider sensitive data and not whether it can be used to create sensitive information. 

“For example, the result of a blood test in a hospital will generally be classified as sensitive data, because it reveals private information about your personal health,” he said. “But today, all sorts of seemingly non-sensitive data can also be used to draw inferences about your health, through data analytics.” 

Big data analytics, countless day to day- actions and decisions creates sensitive data which can be maintained by traditional healthcare providers and tech companies or other entities. Such data, like the data we already create on, for instance, social networks, can be sold.

“At the same time, data from the Internet of Bodies can be used to make predictions and inferences that could affect a person’s or group’s access to resources such as healthcare, insurance and employment.”

Potential discrimination and bias–such as in insurance and employment–poses risks in the adoption of this technology. The WEF acknowledges practical problems in dealing with the sheer volume of data generated by the Internet of Bodies, which could be difficult to combine when it originates from diverse sources. The WEF has explored blockchain as one way in which to solve this challenge of interoperability. 

“The key is to collaborate across borders and sectors to fully realize the enormous benefits of this rapidly advancing technology.”