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How the Internet of Things Can Bolster Health

03/09/2015 09:00 am ET | Updated May 09, 2015

Health happens where we live, work, play and learn. While we're born with inherited genes that endow us with health risks, social factors -- like safe housing, access to good food, education, social support, and access to technology -- profoundly influence whole health. Those social determinants of health impact as much as 50 percent of our overall health; genes contribute about 20 percent.

In fact, people globally define overall health and well-being beyond physical health. Health also encompasses mental health and mood, appearance (as looking good helps us feel better), financial health -- where money in the bank and household fiscal fitness lessens stress's negative health impacts and supports wellbeing -- and social connectedness.

Humans are morphing into the species homo informaticus: information-seeking beings, consuming media on multiple-screens and mobile platforms. As health citizens, people are already connecting to these platforms and devices, to access knowledge, other people in peer-to-peer healthcare for support and crowdsourcing cures, using devices that help keep track of daily living in sickness and in health. Increasingly, these devices and wearable technologies are connected to the Internet and mobile apps.

The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) has profound implications for re-imagining a person-centered health ecosystem. "Things" in the IoT can be health devices, scaled and designed for people to use at-home or on-the-go, not just in physician offices and hospital inpatient settings. "Things" are also beds, scales, toothbrushes, toilets, cars and refrigerators, among other products, all of which can be connected to the Internet. Each of these "Things," embedded with sensors, can gather data throughout our days that, taken together and analyzed by well-conceived algorithms, can inform us, our families and our health care providers about our health. For example:

  • After stepping on the scale, does an increase in our weight signal water retention and, if so, are we in danger of a chronic heart failure flare-up? Should we up our dose of a diuretic?
  • Have we not moved from our bed for 12 hours? Have we opened our refrigerator by noon? Did we fall and not get up?
  • Did our smart toilet register an elevated blood sugar count, leading us to adjust our insulin intake?
  • Are we sitting too long at our desk at work, needing a nudge to move and stay on-course to take 10,000 steps in the day?
  • Did we lose track of time, playing Words With Friends on the iPad at midnight and getting to sleep too late? A smart lamp on the bedside table could have signaled earlier in the evening to shut down our electronic gadgets and ease into a restful night.

The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show exhibit halls showcased dozens of technologies to support these and other health and medical applications. These, coupled with smart home developments, can support health and safe aging at-home.

The Internet of Things can surely help drive individual and public health. Beyond the top-line benefits, which can be many, several issues must also be considered to ensure the benefits of IoT in health outweigh the personal and social costs. First, the "Things" must be well-designed for users -- that is, people -- to streamline with everyday life and not add to folks' already-intrusive digital lives. Second, algorithms that collect and analyze data, then provide recommendations to people and health care providers, should be well-tested and vetted by users to ensure their fidelity, validity, fairness, and utility. Finally, the underlying health information systems must provide full disclosure and transparency of privacy policies to the individual health citizen, and employ security protections for personal health information that commands the trust of the people opting in to the system. Those policies and procedures should pass the "Mom" test: that is, would the developer trust the system with their own mother's data?

We are all connected in health. Sharing data for health, for good, is the new organ donation. Furthermore, research from the lab of Dr. Nicholas Christakis, documented in his book Connected, tells us that our social networks impact our individual health. The Internet of Things scales these connections beyond the networks around our own personal networks. The potential for data being collected about people like us on a global scale has the promise of benefiting health for the "N" of 1 -- that is, for each of us -- and for the "N" of a great many.

This blog post is part of a series on the future of health and technology produced by the editors of HuffPost ImpactX in conjunction with the world premiere of the trailer for documentary 'Detected,' produced by Ironbound Films, in partnership with Cisco. The trailer will debut on March 16 at the SXSW Music and Film Festival in Austin, TX. For more information about 'Detected,' click here. To see all the other posts in the series, click here

Cisco sponsors The Huffington Post's Impact X section.