Centralization has been a predominant paradigm in healthcare computing for the past several decades. Originally, this meant that provider organizations operated large, centralized data centers that housed mainframes and servers designed to serve as the industry’s computing workhorses.
Recent technological advancements are starting to shift that paradigm, however. Miniaturized computing devices, abundant wireless bandwidth and long-duration batteries combine to offer a strong argument for moving some of that power out of the data center and to the edge of the network.
Will the Internet of Things ultimately drive computing to the edge in healthcare? Let’s look at some common statements circulating about edge computing in healthcare organizations and decide whether they are fact or fallacy.
Fact: IoT Is Driving Computing to the Edge
There’s no doubt that IoT is the driving force behind the push to edge computing across industries. Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed the deployment of distributed sensors across virtually every aspect of our lives. Our vehicles are fitted with sensors that help us stay in our lanes on the highway and automatically summon help over a wireless connection if we’re involved in a crash. Our homes have smart thermostats that deploy intelligent algorithms that heat and cool efficiently and predict our arrival and departure times. We even have coffee machines in our office break rooms that predict when they will run out of supplies and automatically place an order with the vendor.
All these solutions involve placing sensors and computing power at the edge, and there’s no reason to believe that these same technologies won’t play an important role in healthcare as well. Patients already use blood pressure monitors, insulin pumps and other home health monitoring devices that automatically provide data to their physicians. Telemedicine technology now places diagnostic devices at remote locations that may be manipulated by a physician or medical technician located hundreds of miles from the patient.
Expect to see these edge-based technologies continue to grow in the coming years.
Fallacy: Edge Computing Will Replace Cloud Computing
While it may seem like an obvious conclusion that the growth of edge computing will supplant the use of on-premises and cloud-based centralized computing approaches, this is not necessarily the case. Deployment of computing resources is not a zero-sum game, and it’s very likely that centralized resources will continue their growth in conjunction with a significant rise in edge technologies.
For example, healthcare providers may wish to deploy newer and more powerful devices inside their patients’ homes to increase both the amount of information collected and real-time analytics performed on that data. While a patient’s home heart monitor might be able to conduct analysis at the edge, it also likely feeds that data back to a centralized server in the cloud for both long-term storage and additional analysis. The growth of edge computing will increase the need for cloud computing capabilities.
Fact: Future Wireless Technologies Will Bolster Edge Computing
Inferior communications capabilities are one of the greatest barriers to many edge computing deployments. For example, firms that manage large healthcare logistics operations could benefit from the deployment of IoT sensors throughout the supply chain. A shipment of temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals could be monitored from the time it leaves the factory until it reaches the pharmacy.
While monitoring certainly takes place today, it is often done in a localized manner and may be much more reactive than proactive, telling the end customer that the shipment spoiled, for example, but providing no preventive recourse. In a proactive edge computing deployment, sensors can carefully monitor the environmental conditions surrounding a shipment and trigger an alarm to a centralized operations center at the earliest sign of deteriorating conditions. The operations team can then reach out to a truck driver, warehouse supervisor or other relevant support staff and have them intervene immediately, saving the shipment from damage.
That immediate proactive reaction depends on constant availability of wireless communications throughout the supply chain. Proactive alerts are only useful if they are received before the product is irreversibly damaged. The deployment of new wireless technologies will increase the bandwidth and range of wireless connections, allowing healthcare organizations to realize the potential of end-to-end supply chain monitoring. These same benefits extend to patient health monitoring and other applications.