It has been over 20 years since the “Internet of Things” (or IoT) has revolutionized virtually all aspects of our lives. From smart homes to smart devices, connectivity via the internet through expansive, high-speed networks, combined with the power of cloud computing, has ushered in a new age of innovation.

The healthcare sector has been positively disrupted by the IoT revolution. Smarter, more convenient wearable MedTech devices have changed how patients receive treatment and diagnoses. These devices have also changed how healthcare providers deliver more effective patient care across age, medical history, and even distance.

Recently, we spoke with Travis Cope, partner, research analyst with William Blair Investment Management covering U.S. mid-cap healthcare companies. Cope is intimately familiar with how the IoT continues to transform the healthcare landscape.

In the future, healthcare professionals may be able to predict the future likelihood of disease in patients based on trends in the rich data streams coming from these same CMDs.

The Impact of Connected Medical Devices

“I think of medical technology as falling into three high-level categories: Diagnostic, therapeutic, and surgical. Connected medical devices (CMDs) have had the most impact on diagnosis and therapy. Companies continue to generate remarkable innovation at a rapid pace, providing benefits for the sick and healthy alike. Predictive care, the ability to identify patients at a high risk of experiencing an acute adverse health event, like a heart attack or stroke, is now something physicians can accomplish with the data collected via CMDs. In the future, healthcare professionals may be able to predict the future likelihood of disease in patients based on trends in the rich data streams coming from these same CMDs,” Cope explains.

One example in the therapeutic category of medical devices is insulin pump technology.

“For those living with diabetes, the concept of a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) system is nothing new. It’s been around now for decades. Impressive CMDs in their own right, CGMs very precisely measure a patient's glucose, or blood sugar levels. Pump companies have developed insulin pump technology that allows for 24/7 CGM connectivity, precisely determining how much insulin to deliver in real time based on glucose readings from the CGM. These readings are also transmitted directly to healthcare professionals, and, as a result, adjustments to patient therapy can be made more rapidly. No doctor’s appointment, no travel time.”

While CGM is well penetrated in the Type 1 population, it is estimated that nearly 2.5 million diabetes patients—or just under 25% of all Type 2 diabetes patients—use CGM devices in the U.S. Therefore, the potential impact yet to come (as CGM penetration increases) is significant.

While CMDs have had the broadest impact on diagnostic and therapeutic treatment, another growing area we are watching is advancements in surgery augmented by artificial intelligence (AI).

How CMDs are Improving Patient Care

Cope further expands on how CMDs improve healthcare in several ways.

“I’d say that the first main benefit is accessibility. We are seeing a wide range of CMD applications that obtain and provide data to healthcare professionals in real time, and the information is transmitted to the most logical and accessible places, whether it be a dashboard at the nurse’s station, a tablet, or even a healthcare professional’s smartphone. This process greatly differs from the past, where nurses had to constantly do regular rounds without the ability to triage the patients most in need of care. We are also seeing the actionability of CMDs making a tremendous impact.”

One example Cope provides is with patients who suffer from arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythms). Connectivity through a small, convenient electrocardiogram (ECG) patch worn on the chest gives patients and doctors a means to obtain real-time diagnostic information and, in some instances, diagnose life-threatening heart rhythm disorders as early as possible. Detecting and treating a condition like atrial fibrillation (or AFib) early can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. Patients diagnosed with AFib have a five-fold reduction in the chance of stroke once placed on anticoagulant medication.

“Think about the impact of being able to alert the patient to seek medical help before a major cardiac event occurs while simultaneously transmitting relevant information to a healthcare provider, who can be at-the-ready to direct treatment without haste.”

As Cope describes, the third and perhaps most important benefit of the CMD space is intelligent automation.

“While CMDs have had the broadest impact on diagnostic and therapeutic treatment, another growing area we are watching is advancements in surgery augmented by artificial intelligence (AI). If we think about an example in which a person suffers from blood clots, nowadays, AI-assisted clot removal can be performed.”

Historically, clot removal is achieved via open surgery or drugs that dissolve a clot, but at the cost of potentially life-threatening complications, including intracranial hemorrhage and other major bleeding. The next phase of innovation was the development of minimally invasive surgeries called “aspiration,” where a catheter (tiny tube) was inserted via the femoral artery and navigated up to the face of the blood clot, where the clot would be sucked out via a vacuum. More recently, AI-augmented aspiration enables doctors to perform the procedure in less time and with fewer complications. The catheter tips now contain tiny sensors that detect the presence of flowing blood or clots. These connected catheters communicate to the vacuum pump, which selectively turns on or off in the presence of clot or blood, respectively. This reduces blood loss and the need to frequently start and stop the procedure to perform imaging. The technology does not replace doctors, however.

“While futuristic, this does not portent a future where the machines replace the humans. The talk of general AI is all the rage these days, and this is an example of intelligent automation helping humans do their jobs better,” Cope says.

“The innovation allows us to reach underserved demographics as well: It positively impacts who we treat and how we treat. CMDs allow patients to be seen, diagnosed, and treated where they live. As we saw from the pandemic, this can be a tremendous benefit for those in lower-income areas where access to in-person medical care is limited. Older, higher-risk patients also benefit from such innovation as connectivity provides doctors and physicians access to biometrics that were previously unavailable without in-person visits.”

Travis Cope, partner, Investment Management research analyst

The Potential Benefits of CMDs are Virtually Limitless

The innovation potential in healthcare is boundless and will undoubtedly impact millions of patients worldwide. This innovation is much needed against numerous disease epidemics such as diabetes, cancer, and even obesity. As the technology sector has seamlessly become intertwined with other sectors of the economy, so too will the healthcare sector.

“One of the interesting topics in MedTech is how the lines have blurred between healthcare and consumer markets with the new wave of ‘wearables.’ Health and wellness are now intertwined in our daily lives more than ever. Popular consumer products like the Apple Watch now boast arrhythmia detection, and integrated CGM is currently under investigation.”

The current CMD market is estimated to be about $56 billion and is expected to reach over $115 billion over the next five years. As Cope explains, these numbers should continue to grow as studies suggest that when a person sees the impact of a CMD on their life, they are more likely to make positive lifestyle changes.

“Not everyone will respond the same way, but because of the information gleaned from CMDs, new generations have an information advantage related to health, which I believe will enable us to live longer and healthier.”