The Internet of Things -- the idea that all devices and their components will be eventually be connected wirelessly -- could be used to create healthier hospitals and smarter homes. However, the Internet of Things can also be used on a smaller scale to enhance a person's health by connecting his or her body to the Internet with smart pills, artificial organs, and wearable devices.
The future of smart pills
When most people think of smart pills, they probably think of Covidien's ( COV.DL ) Smart Pill GI Monitoring System. The Smart Pill uses a camera and various sensors to measure pH levels, pressure, and temperature in the gastrointestinal tract. It can also measure gastrointestinal transit times to diagnose problems such as constipation.
Covidien acquired the pill through its recent acquisition of Given Imaging (NASDAQ: GIVN) for $860 million. Covidien believes that the acquisition will add between $40 million to $50 million per quarter to its Advanced Surgical segment, which generated $1.26 billion in sales last quarter.
Now imagine if these smart pills could transmit signals from your body to your smartphone. That's precisely what Proteus Digital Health -- a company backed by major investors like Novartis (NYSE: NVS), Medtronic ( MDT -1.15% ), and Oracle (NYSE: ORCL) -- intends to do.
Proteus' Helius is a pill capsule that is made from silicon and natural ingredients. Upon reaching a patient's stomach, it uses stomach fluid as a power source to broadcast signals to a battery-powered external patch. The patch then transmits the patient's heart rate, body temperature, time of ingestion, and other health data to a companion smartphone app that can be evaluated by a health care professional.
The pill then dissolves and delivers the medication into the patient's body. Although Helius sounds like a futuristic sci-fi creation, the pill's ingestible sensor was approved by the FDA in August 2012.
The future of smart organs
Medtronic, which produced the first battery-operated wearable pacemaker in 1957, has continuously improved connectivity for its medical devices.
The company's CareLink network allows patients to connect their pacemakers to a Home Monitor device, which connects remotely over a phone line to a physician who analyzes the data. As a result, physicians can detect problems before they occur or reassure patients that their pacemakers are in optimum condition.
Meanwhile, St. Jude Medical ( STJ ) went a step further with a pacemaker that continually transmits data to doctors over a Wi-Fi connection to the Internet. That game-changing device, known as the Accent, was approved by the FDA in July 2009. Demand for these newer Wi-Fi pacemakers could boost sales at St. Jude's Cardiac Rhythm Management (CRM) segment, which accounts for approximately half of its top line.
Since the approval of St. Jude's Accent, Medtronic and Boston Scientific (NYSE: BSX) have launched their own wireless pacemakers. This has spurred the development of experimental Apple ( AAPL -0.32% ) iPad apps, which can remotely monitor pacemakers, but has also led to fears that Wi-Fi hacks or interference could cause these cloud-connected pacemakers to malfunction.
These advancements in wireless cardiac devices could also be used to improve Medtronic's new first-generation wearable artificial pancreas, the MiniMed 530G. The device, which was approved by the FDA last September, consists of a continuous glucose monitor connected to an insulin pump. When blood sugar levels fall below preset levels, the pump shuts off for two hours. Medtronic could eventually connect future versions of the device to a diabetic-care network similar to the Medtronic CareLink Netowrk used by its pacemakers.
How wearables could tie everything together
When we consider the fact that pills and artificial organs can "talk" to smartphones via wireless connections, it becomes clear that wearable smart devices, such as fitness bands and smart watches, could easily become the central hub for remote health care. Ingested pills and medical devices could transmit data directly to your wrist and your doctor, ensuring that your health is constantly monitored.
Currently available fitness bands and smartwatches don't go very far beyond tracking basic health stats such as steps taken and heart rate, since anything deeper (such as readings involving bodily fluids) would require an FDA approval.
However, both Google ( GOOGL -0.60% ) and Apple have recently held meetings with the FDA to discuss their future in the health care industry. Google has already made surprising investments in biotech through Calico and medical devices via its Google X team. Apple, on the other hand, introduced the motion sensing and tracking M7 chip in its iPhone 5S -- which opens the door to a whole new world of health and fitness apps.
Since the wearable bands (fitness bands and smartwatch) market is expected to grow 350% year over year in 2014, it makes a lot of sense for medical device makers such as Covidien, Medtronic, and St. Jude Medical to start working more closely with Apple and Google to synchronize their technologies to the user's wrist.
The Foolish takeaway
In conclusion, the Internet of Things may ultimately connect everything -- hospitals, homes, and even our bodies -- to a sprawling web of real-time information. Smart pills, organs, and wearables are just early examples of how the Internet of Things can significantly improve our personal health over the next few decades.