Health Communication in the Internet of Things

Are you ready for your fridge to nag you about eating too much ice cream…or your shirt to tell you if you’re running a fever…or your bra to let you know if it’s time to get a mammogram?

This isn’t science fiction. It’s the ever-increasing internet of things – a massively interconnected assembly of hardware and software that may help us take better care of the human wetware we carry around with us every minute. According to a study by the research firm, Gartner, there will be as many as 30 billion devices connected to the Internet of things by 2020, which will add nearly $2 trillion to the global economy.

The deluge of information that we’ll soon be receiving about our own health will put stresses on our ability to make sense of it all – and provide new opportunities for health communications, as well as new challenges for medicine and policy.

If you have a T-shirt that tells you if you’re feverish or a bra to detect breast cancer, it’s a short step to coupling that information with a recommendation on the kind of drugs you should take or the tests you should consider. Whether people are really ready to take medical advice from their clothing remains to be seen, but a few years ago, who would have thought that one of the leading sources of medical information in America would be “Dr. Google?”

The new dynamic of the Internet of things further demolishes the traditional relationship between doctor and patient – once based on the vast asymmetry of knowledge and understanding between the two. Already, patients come to medical appointments armed with the latest information from the web, and they will increasingly supplement that source with real-time data from a host of biosensors. Of course, data is not the same as understanding, and this new landscape offers as much scope for misinformation as for genuine knowledge.

As with any new frontier, the pioneers in this new information space will be able to stake their claims to the new territory of communications. Those who seize the opportunity to integrate into the Internet of things to provide health communication could reap enormous rewards. Rather than communicating to a whole population to reach the few people at risk for a disease, messages can be targeted to those whose individual data indicates a specific illness.

The real beneficiaries from health messaging in the Internet of things are likely to be pharmaceutical companies providing information on products linked to physiological data. When your fridge nags you about reaching for the ice cream once too often, it could provide you with information on the newest diet pill. When biosensors detect increased risk of heart disease, they could suggest speaking to your doctor about specific treatments. Alternately, these new interlinked devices may not themselves be the messengers in this new world of health communication, but may instead create additional data pools that healthcare companies can mine for further information about the disorders which people may have or for which they may be at risk. For example, pill bottles or even medicine cabinets may have automatic sensors to detect when they have remained unopened too long, relaying that information to a pharmacy or drug company so that patients can be reminded to take their medicines.

What are the implications of this revolution for communications?

Not so long ago, there was a rigid division between the moments in which you received health information and the rest of ordinary life. You got formal health information from a doctor – which happened only in an office – or through publications or transmissions from health care companies delivered through channels that required significant production resources: print, radio or television.

Now, of course, such health information is more pervasive and has a much lower production cost, being presented via Internet, mobile apps, and through social media. This trend toward information diffusion has changed the information itself, which has become more constant, more fluid, more informal, and more bite-sized.

The increased connectivity of even the most inert-seeming objects will further accelerate these trends, driving health information to become even more fluid and compact, perhaps almost becoming part of the background of information we absorb subliminally.

As communicators in healthcare, we need to anticipate this trend, and be ready with more fluid, more nimble, more pervasive communications strategies that can adapt to a world where barriers between what is the physical environment and what is a communications medium have all but disappeared.

That future is one that may exacerbate our feelings of being overloaded with information, and it will almost certainly cause sleepless nights for regulators and corporate legal departments, trying to work out what is and is not permissible promotion, but it is a future that is inevitably coming – and coming soon. The key is to be ready for it – and to have winning strategies prepared before competitors know it’s coming.

David Bowen, Global Healthcare Practice Leader

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