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How edge computing will transform medicine

9 November, 2021


Edge computing is increasingly seen as a critical component in the data ecosystem created by connected devices. It’s generally defined as a distributed computing paradigm that puts computation and data storage physically close to where the data is generated and used.
In healthcare, the technique allows data collected by sensors and other medical devices to be analyzed where patients are. It’s this proximity of computing and storage capabilities that many health IT experts predict will help transform healthcare by delivering near-instantaneous processing.

Edge could support advanced remote-patient monitoring by processing data from medical devices such as glucose monitors and blood pressure cuffs and then alerting clinicians to problematic readings. It could enable real-time management of medical equipment as the various pieces move through hospital facilities. And it could deliver on-demand content for augmented reality and virtual reality training sessions, with the proximity of the edge computing devices ensuring there’s no lag in the experience.

Meanwhile, healthcare is expanding beyond hospital walls and physician exam rooms, with virtual visits, remote-patient monitoring, and consumer wearables creating even more data that clinicians want to capture and analyze so they can provide care anywhere and everywhere.

Health IT leaders say the use of edge computing in healthcare is still in its early stages. Furthermore, they note that much of the computational power that exists on the edge in healthcare today is embedded in the end devices themselves.

However, Health IT experts expect investments in edge technology to grow in coming years — and with that growth, some say edge will help transform how, where, and how quickly care can be delivered.

Weisong Shi, a Wayne State University computer science professor and an expert on edge computing and connected health, points to the future of emergency services as an example. Medics working in an ambulance could take pictures that could be collated with a patient’s biometric data from onboard medical devices and analyzed by an edge device. Results then could guide the medics on treatments to give en route and could alert emergency room clinicians on how best to prepare for the patient’s arrival.

Or, Shi says, edge devices performing in-field real-time data computations could let medics evaluate and even effectively treat patients on-site, helping cut down on unnecessary hospital visits.

Others cite the potential of edge computing in enabling more effective virtual care and remote-patient monitoring as evidence of the technology’s transformational capacity.

Barriers to expanding edge computing in healthcare

Wide-scale adoption of edge computing in healthcare is years off, perhaps even a decade or more away, according to CIOs and health IT researchers.

To start, healthcare institutions generally have other investment priorities. CIOs say funding for medical devices and diagnostic equipment that deliver immediate impacts on patient care typically have precedent.

For example, Shi says he and some colleagues developed a prototype for connected emergency medical services (EMS) that they labeled STREMS, for a smart real-time prehospital communication system for EMS — but the proposal has yet to receive funding.