Senior Writer

Cloud, IoT usher in new era for healthcare

Mar 01, 2022
Cloud ComputingHealthcare IndustryInternet of Things

J&J Medical Devices is partnering with Microsoft on a surgical platform that marries AI with medical device data, but innovations aimed at digitally transforming healthcare face unique challenges.

healthcare technology / medical data
Credit: Metamorworks / Getty Images

CIO Larry Jones has seen his share of change over more for than 30 years working in healthcare IT. But the group CIO of Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies (JJMDC) believes recent IT advances are fueling digital transformations that will open whole new horizons for health care.

“We believe we’re taking some early steps to be more than just a device company,” Jones says. “We want to be a technology company.”

To make good on that, JJMDC is collaborating with Microsoft to build a state-of-the-art digital surgical platform on Azure that aims to revolutionize medical procedures and enable connectivity of IoT devices, dashboards, and instruments used during procedures.

The recently announced partnership will see JJMDC using Azure artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data analysis tools in support of a host of IoT devices used by doctors and nurses connected via an IoT hub to transform the company’s five-year-old surgical platform.

Larry Jones, group CIO, Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies

Larry Jones, group CIO, JJMDC

Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies

“The cloud is the catalyst,” Jones says, noting the mountain of data piling up from the expanding number of IoT devices in use during medical procedures — ranging from automated sensors on patients to IP-enabled intelligent medical instrumentation that generate real-time data — has inspired a needed redesign of JJMDC’s existing platform.

The move comes amid a boom in worldwide healthcare provider IT spending, which is expected to reach $171.8 billion in 2025, up from $121.7 billion last year, according to Gartner.

In addition to Azure AI and Azure IoT Hub, JJMDC’s multiyear project will lean on Microsoft 365 and Dynamics 365, as well as Azure Cloud for Healthcare and the Azure Health Connector.

But innovations such as JJMDC’s digital surgical platform face unique challenges in a bid to transform health care, analysts and healthcare CIOs say.

The promise (and challenges) of digital surgical platforms

When complete, JJMDC’s digital surgical platform will enable healthcare professionals to leverage Microsoft machine learning and data insights to create personalized surgical and treatment plans, Jones says. JJMDC has already used a Microsoft AI algorithm for a medical instrument that seals blood vessels during surgery.

According to Microsoft, its AI and machine learning will enable JJDMC’s platform to extract data from a patient’s history to spot complications that may arise during a procedure and assist medical teams in determining whether a patient is at higher risk for specific diseases.

The JJMDC platform is aimed at surgeons, nurses, physical therapists, and care managers, giving them a comprehensive patient view from a common dashboard.

But enabling seamless connectivity among connected tools used in the diagnostic and surgical cycle — next-generation robotics, smart IoT instruments, advanced 3D imaging and visualization, and AI/ML — is no easy task, says Lee David Milligan, M.D. and CIO at Asante Health Systems in Medford, Ore.

“We have disjointed technology, data, and workflows throughout [operating rooms] across the country. Efforts to unify and connect data will bring a host of challenges and possibilities,” Milligan says. “In this particular case, the effort looks to connect medical devices and leverage Azure powered AI. In the end, the success or failure will depend upon whether there is a clear understanding of the clinical and operational problems that need solving.”

Jesus Delgado, vice president and CIO of Community Healthcare in Indiana, agrees that the rise of IoT-enabled devices in healthcare presents unique challenges.

“Healthcare systems depend extensively on biomedical devices to capture and monitor patient medical information. However, the work effort to manage medical data that is captured has become increasingly complicated,” Delgado says, adding that the addition of cloud-enabled AI and machine learning adds to these concerns. “A close partnership with healthcare CIOs is going to be paramount to the success of innovation in this space. As new innovation is explored, we can’t lose sight of the complexity in hospital operations.”

Asante’s Milligan notes that healthcare innovations, such as JJMDC’s surgical platform, must move beyond being technology for technology’s sake, and instead support and augment clinical and operational needs. “What are the specific intended use cases? How will these use cases tie into the technology and, ultimately, the ROI?” Milligan asks. “If these questions can be answered with clarity, they will be off to a great start.”

A new era for healthcare

J&J currently delivers a robotic-based knee replacement surgical platform and AI/ML tools that deliver more precise readings of lung scans. The digital surgical platform under development will employ robotics and automation, but the added value of seamlessly internetworked IoT devices and AI is aimed to generate unprecedented data insights that optimize surgical performance and elevate pre-op and post-op outcomes.

“It’s beyond the robot,” JJMDC’s Jones says. “What we are looking at is certainly an IoT platform facilitated by integration from an IoT Hub or cloud gateway that supports ERP integration, patient-level data, and harnessing that data into a storage for that procedure. We want to marry together procedure and performance data from the device to perform insights.”

During procedures, for instance, the digital platform will be designed to give surgeons access to an information-rich dashboard that generates medical insights and recommendations, 3D views of organs, and response to techniques, as well as pre-op and post-op health analytics on the patient, Jones says.

For healthcare IT, the aim is to help ease the burden of dealing with massive amounts of clinical data and connected IoT devices, as well as ensuring compliance with data, security, and privacy regulations, he adds. “Advances in cloud technology offers the opportunity for us to integrate those things and create an experience that hopefully addresses many of those challenges,” Jones says.

Given that it is still early days for the multiyear project, industry observers are taking a wait-and-see approach to JJMDC’s digital platform, but they applaud the efforts.

“J&J is realizing that it’s time for them to put a put a foundational underlying architecture underneath these things to allow them to intercommunicate and they’re just saying that they’ve selected Microsoft to be that enabling underlying technology that will help create this Johnson & Johnson ecosystem,” says Gartner analysts Gregg Pessin.

In the long run, J&J’s $25 billion medical products group and competitors such as Siemens and GE Healthcare will create interoperability among their respective devices to simplify the process of interconnectivity, Pessin predicts.

In addition to the AI, automation, and computational gains, such digital surgical platforms and dashboards are being increasingly integrated into clinical workflows, Pessin says, adding that reliability must be 100% — the four 9s in enterprise computing won’t cut it in life and death surgical applications.

“There’s been a growing need over time, but we’re getting to this tipping point where the infrastructure is becoming part of critical path for care delivery,” Pessin says. “We’re at this precipice — the dawn of a new era of healthcare is coming.”