Often in rural and remote areas, medical care has been known to fail to meet standards which are met across the rest of the country. It is acknowledged that smaller NHS health care providers face higher costs than larger, urban areas, thus, reducing the number of available primary and secondary care services. Recruitment can also be more difficult in remote locations, and smaller patient volumes can require specialist skills, which creates barriers for patients to access their necessary care.

As set out in the NHS Operational Planning and Contracting Guidance 2017-2019, one of the core requirements is to address issues of inequality in patients’ experience of accessing care. It is a priority to ensure that each member of the public can equally access health and care services, irrespective of their location.

The power of technology has the potential to change access to care both now and into the future. Digital solutions and strategies, such as edge computing, can be used to provide healthcare workers with the ability to interact with and monitor patients in places which have been traditionally harder to reach. Here Peter Ruffley, chief executive of Zizo, explains how these healthcare applications can improve standards of care across the nation.

At the edge

As healthcare organisations continue to make use of digital technologies, including connected medical devices and the Internet of Things for remote patient monitoring and continuity of care, they need to have the right processing capabilities in place for collecting, storing and analysing mass volumes of data. This can be achieved through edge computing, which is where data is analysed and acted upon at the point of collection, or on a nearby system which is situated between the connected device and the cloud.

Predominantly, hospitals have been using a centralised data storage facility, which then transmits the data over a widespread network, but this strategy can create delays in data distribution, as well as present issues with data security. Instead, the edge can help to gather healthcare data and use analytics to interpret it and respond to any medical emergencies, presenting a more holistic insight. This distribution can be communicated much quicker, and also more securely, while improving network efficiency.

Rural and remote access

Typically, medical providers have struggled to deliver quality and timely healthcare to those who live far from hospitals or may have limited internet access. However, healthcare can be made much more accessible, especially for remote areas, with the help of edge computing and IoT devices.

By working with an edge data centre, IoT devices can provide healthcare professionals with near real-time access to patient data, even in areas with poor connectivity, in turn, expanding the reach of clinical services. The low latency aspects of the edge enables live altering, which is essential for recording and acting upon any changes and deterioration in the patient’s health. For example, a truck fitted with edge computing devices can visit isolated villages to provide advanced healthcare by connecting residents to telemedicine and virtual health care services.

Extending clinical trials

Clinical trials and research studies play a huge role in the advancement of healthcare, medicines and pharmaceuticals. Typical studies and trials can last a couple of weeks, but the opportunity to extend these into longitudinal studies provides much more value. From a scientific-pharmaceutical perspective, the idea of a connected device is to enable and enhance these types of studies.

Edge computing can help to improve clinical trials by allowing the reach of these experiments to extend further than ever before, occur more frequently and accurately, and eliminate any unnecessary delays. The key to this is capturing data in the right time, in the right format, in the right way, which can be achieved through edge devices – where the data doesn’t have to go back to the cloud, creating small and contained networks within itself.

Within the confines of clinical trials, a crucial element of achieving accuracy is ensuring patient compliance – taking medication at set times, for example, but the only way to truly know whether patients are being compliant is to have 24/7 contact and visibility of them. The idea of deploying analytics at the edge, whether that be through an edge device or edge infrastructure, enables the researcher to have this constant contact for a successful study. Additionally, this presents new opportunities to enhance precision medicine research by integrating wearables and sensors into the clinical trial process and therefore improving compliance and reporting.

Improving patient outcomes in emergency settings

By enabling edge computing, crucial data can be transmitted from the ambulance to the hospital in real-time. In current emergency service systems, paramedics are typically only able to brief emergency doctors, which can create inefficiencies and delays in hand over times and patient transfers. However, in an emergency, seconds can be vital. The low latency and data processing capabilities of edge computing at a network edge, alongside 5G, can enable faster and more accurate diagnosis and treatment by paramedics on-site, as well as more granular information at the hospital on the status of incoming patients.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has already accelerated the use of digital solutions in technology and healthcare and has the opportunity to be the same catalyst for the uptake of edge computing in healthcare. With 5G being a key component, this technology will continue to develop and advance, as will the education and awareness of it, in turn, transforming the sector with the efficiency and accuracy it so desperately needs.

Collectively, healthcare will begin to move away from the idea that cloud-fits-all, and in forward-thinking areas, we will begin to see trial testbeds using edge computing, with a wider understanding of how micro-data centres and edge devices can benefit healthcare outreach and better patient care.