The Internet of Things promises an incredible opportunity to both patients and healthcare providers. This burgeoning revolution in healthcare technology has the potential to unleash an entire new category of connected devices and services that will make medicine more personal and, in turn, better. Before we can embrace all this potential however, we need to ask ourselves an important, yet commonly overlooked question: Are we ready for this bold future?
As the health IT industry anticipates the Internet of Healthcare Things, an investment in IPv6 is necessary to bring the IoHT to fruition
A widely-accepted estimate is that by 2020, we will have 50 billion connected “things” on the Internet. Each sensor, device, and appliance requires a unique IP address to maintain an always-on connection. Maturing technologies and new products come along every day on the Internet of Healthcare Things (IoHT). Wearables are one example of how this market is evolving. Today’s mass-market wearable devices are used for monitoring a patient’s sleep patterns and heart rate. But soon, these personalized sensors will communicate important health indicators directly to healthcare providers, allowing doctors to continually monitor a patient’s vital signs and their responses to medication and treatment. Availability of real-time health data will transform telemedicine, enabling true remote care no matter where the patient is located. Wearable sensors linked to telemedicine have the potential to tear down geographical barriers to care and benefit rural and underserved urban populations. As new Internet-connected technology becomes increasingly available and personal, it will include not only wearables, but other connected devices such as digital scales and blood pressure monitors. In addition, personal communication via smartphones and tablets using rich messaging and videoconferencing will transform the interactions between patients and healthcare providers.
While the Internet of Healthcare Things model fundamentally changes health care delivery, the Internet itself is going through a dramatic change of its own. In September of 2015, we announced that the way that devices are connected to the Internet is undergoing a major change due to runout of the unique identifiers used in the Internet. Every device on the Internet needs a unique address, and the addresses that have been used to date (Internet Protocol version 4, or “IPv4”) are running out! IPv4 provides a fairly limited number of addresses – only 4.3 billion IP addresses. With the explosive growth of the Internet, IPv4 has become inadequate to serve the many new connected devices, and Internet Protocol version 6 was created to provide more than 340 undecillion (340 trillion trillion trillon) IP addresses to meet and far exceed current and future technology needs. In short, IPv4 depletion made the transition to IPv6 critical. Due to its near limitless pool of addresses, IPv6 is the only option to sustain the sheer volume of devices expected to have an always-on connection to the Internet.
During the transition from IPv4 to IPv6, the Internet will have two protocols with limited interconnection. Making sure that your systems support IPv6 will prepare you to grow with the field of digital health, rather than catch up, as these new applications evolve. Major firms are already making sure that their services are available across both IPv4 and IPv6 connections. Both Apple and Google have shown interest in developing robust healthcare data collection and analytical software to work with an ecosystem of apps and Internet-enabled devices that could be used in healthcare settings.
Small investments in time and resources today to include IPv6 support in your system developments will prepare you for the technology needs of the future. Patchwork solutions won’t sustain the IoHT. We must make sure that healthcare applications and devices support IPv6 in addition to IPv4. The days of the experimental Internet are over. It is the dawn of the Internet of Healthcare Things and the future that runs on IPv6.