Healthcare faces a daily battle with rising demands, strained finances and the fallout from the pandemic. Could “edge computing” be its saviour?
The terminology lacks the charisma of a new vaccine or wonder drug, or the political drama of a multibillion-pound funding programme. However, it has significant potential to tap the oceans of valuable data washing around healthcare.
Edge computing is a physical infrastructure outside a cloud setup or central data system that enables staff to access and analyse data – patient and clinical information – swiftly, cleanly and locally. The technology’s transformative potency comes from taking the data generated every day by hospitals, clinics and wearables and placing it close to where it’s needed most, rather than in a central repository where bandwidth and latency are barriers to its use.
Edge computing eliminates latency – the time taken to access the right data – and provides opportunities for faster response times and more comprehensive insights. It could empower technology for at-home monitoring, telemedicine and scaled-up virtual services, along with smart systems and real-time diagnostics. This is mission critical for the new care models needed to alleviate the roadblocks that blight traditional reactive care.
The edge is proving powerful across industry and retail, where it has a clear profit and loss impact. Analysts Grand View Research predict it will achieve a compound annual growth rate of 38.4% from 2021 to 2028.
Health systems can be slow to adopt technology. However, the edge is beguiling because it offers efficiencies from using data smartly at source. It could also be a gateway to new systems like 5G networks, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
“2021 is the year of the edge,” says Laura Foster, programme manager, technology and innovation for techUK, the trade association for tech innovators, companies and organisations. “We are generating so much data and it doesn’t make sense to send it all to the cloud; it makes sense to process the data as soon as you can so it can be used where it is needed most.”
The boom in smart technology and wearables has created waves of data that can swamp conventional networks and delay vital content like X-rays and MRI scans reaching clinicians. Edge establishes local data networks with easy access, leading to ultra-fast diagnoses and decision-making and liberating clinicians from laborious data-processing duties.
It’s gathering momentum across the NHS, although the cost of deploying new hardware and software is a significant barrier.
“It is going to be transformative and I’m excited about how it empowers the adoption of tech such as AR and VR in healthcare,” adds Foster. “It will be crucial over the next decade, dealing with the backlog caused by the pandemic and offering new opportunities for care models.”
Better monitoring of patients remotely and the use of telemedicine can reduce the number of hospital admissions and allow agile services to thrive at local level, she says, though progress will be tempered by the ravages of the pandemic.
These are early days for edge computing; it will take belief, investment and upskilling to make significant progress. A report by Aruba, a wireless networking subsidiary of Hewlett Packard, found that 92% of IT decision makers said they are missing skills to unlock the power of data, principally in artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Edge computing increases the amount of data being used and in circulation, which can elevate cybersecurity risks. A report at the end of 2020 found that 57% of IT decision makers surveyed believed connecting IoT devices at the edge had or would make their business more vulnerable.
David Wyndham Lewis, a former NHS Trust chief information officer and now health and life sciences director, UK & Ireland at information technology company Atos, says it is “an immense challenge to find ways to assure security and privacy alongside exponentially increasing data volume and the decentralisation of the collection of the data”.
However, edge computing addresses many of the bottlenecks to true digital transformation in healthcare, adds Wyndham Lewis. We’re “moving into a world where every person is increasingly digitally connected by their phone or smart watch and those devices are creating a torrent of clinically valuable data”, he says. A clinician can’t review or respond to this volume of data, while current hospital digital systems aren’t set up to process it.
Atos is taking part in a number of schemes in the UK that use a range of monitors to help care for the elderly who may fall or wander off. Connecting those IoT devices and keeping the data locally is improving care and response times.
“Edge computing provides an opportunity to improve the care delivered to an individual patient and provide data that could be used for a wider good,” adds Wyndham Lewis. It helps move healthcare from a reactive model to one that focuses on maintenance of wellbeing, which is the only way to tackle the demographic shift while providing good and improving quality of care.
“For that to take place, we absolutely have to have that local decision made or local intelligence applied to the data. Otherwise, our current health system and clinicians will just be overwhelmed.”