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Vol. LXV, No. 13
June 21, 2013

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Technology Revolution
Data, Devices and Networks Promoting Smarter Health Care

Dr. Ram Sriram

Dr. Ram Sriram

Imagine a doctor appearing on a computer screen that sits atop a sensing robot; the robot locates a collapsed patient, takes her vital signs and instantly transmits test results to the doctor. The technology for this 21st century physician already exists and demonstrates what’s possible in modern medicine when we combine computer and human innovation with communication networks.

Health care is a $2.7 trillion industry that continues to grow. “If you use information technology in the most efficient manner, you can [probably] save $100 billion,” estimated Dr. Ram Sriram, chief of the software & systems division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “It’s not just biology, not just computer science, not management; it’s a combination of all of these things that’s going to play [a role] in the future health care regime.”

At his May 9 lecture at NIH, Sriram said smartphones and other smart devices are constantly sensing, monitoring and interpreting the environment. This, he points out, is called “The Internet of Things,” an interconnected web of devices transforming our everyday lives. Meanwhile, social networks are connecting people, he said, “fostering a participatory culture and harnessing the collective knowledge of society.”

Combining the Internet of Things and social networks, he said, forms SNSS—Smart Networked Systems and Societies. SNSS makes such advances as the 21st century doctor possible, by connecting cyber physical systems with medical devices while humans interact with them.

A growing number of Americans are looking online for health information and the health community is connecting to them via social media. Sriram said many hospitals are using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and blogs for education, marketing, crisis communication and community outreach.

SNSS will help create smart health care, said Sriram, fusing advances in information technology with health care practices. There’s technology available in which a small EKG device attaches to a smartphone and transfers data. Or, you might tweet about having a sore throat and instantly “visit clinic” advice pops up; then GPS gets you there. These are events in real time, transferring information and spurring immediate response.

Observes Sriram, “Think what the combined intelligence of the billions of people on the Internet can achieve.” He is holding a smartphone, part of the “Internet of Things.”

Observes Sriram, “Think what the combined intelligence of the billions of people on the Internet can achieve.” He is holding a smartphone, part of the “Internet of Things.”

Photos: Bill Branson

While such advances offer opportunity, they also present privacy and security challenges. Is the data encrypted and who has access? Is the wireless network protected from data phishing and eavesdropping? Also, sensors and GPS can track our exact location. The person who posts about a sore throat can lead someone to conclude many people are sick in that area. This seems like innocuous information but certain facts could have consequences for bioterrorism, said Sriram.

Devices are talking to one another, generating huge volumes of data in and among systems. Sriram said we need to develop standards and protocols for information security that include identifying network vulnerabilities and having strategies and other fixes ready to go.

Devices and systems must operate and communicate properly. If networks fail, for example following a natural disaster, we must be able to reconfigure them to prevent loss of health records and other sensitive data. With the deluge of data, Sriram said, it’s a challenge to categorize and process all of it, make it accessible and build a supportive and secure infrastructure.

By 2020, according to Intel, there will be 31 billion devices and 4 billion people (more than half the world’s population) connected to the web. Observes Sriram, “Think what the combined intelligence of the billions of people on the Internet can achieve.”

The event was hosted by the NIH biomedical computing interest group, an organization that promotes good biocomputing methodology and technology. The group meets for lectures, book club meetings, think-tank sessions and social gatherings. To learn more about BCIG and its upcoming events, contact Jim DeLeo at

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