Is the ‘Internet of Things’ Health IT’s Next Big Thing?

Gartner Inc. has come out with a bullish report on the “internet of things,” which it predicts will add nearly $2 trillion in value to the economy by 2020 and transform the way all businesses operate.

As many as 30 billion devices with unique IP addresses will be connected, the majority of them being products, according to Gartner. That’s compared with a 2009 figure of 2.5 billion, 80 percent of them being devices such as laptops and phones.

One of the most often quoted descriptions of the internet of things comes from Helen Duce, director of the RFID Technology Auto-ID European Centre at the University of Cambridge: “We have a clear vision: to create a world where every object — from jumbo jets to sewing needles — is linked to the Internet.”

Health care would, of course, be part of the vision, which Gartner, a Stamford, Conn.-based IT research and advisory firm, calls the Digital Industrial Economy. The sector receives prominent billing, along with retail and transportation, in Garner’s latest news release on the topic.

The thinking is that physical objects — ”from roadways to pacemakers,” as McKinsey & Co. put it in one report — will produce constant data streams that can be analyzed and acted on. The possibilities for systems such as inventory control are obvious enough, as the inventory would report on itself.

In health care, a major application could be in patient monitoring. Marketplace has quoted Dr. Anthony Jones of Philips Healthcare on the possibilities: ”If I now have a continuous monitor, and I have that data going up into a central repository, I can write algorithms and put some intelligence into that repository that allows me to look for trends. So part of what the Internet of things will allow is much more sophisticated, much more continuous monitoring.” Sounds a bit like what John described in his post “Every Organ Will Have an IP Address.”

It sounds promising. But it also sounds much more incremental than it’s being portrayed by Gartner and other consultants.

Consider how Peter Sondergaard, senior vice president at Gartner, explained the future in a recent talk covered by ZDNet:

“The Digital Industrial Economy will be built on the foundations of the Nexus of Forces (which includes a confluence and integration of cloud, social collaboration, mobile and information) and the Internet of Everything by combining the physical world and the virtual.”

The predictions — Sondergaard said every object costing more than $100 will be smart by 2020 — look optimistic. Or pessimistic, depending on how you look at it: Gartner also estimates that one in three knowledge workers will be displaced by the new technologies.

About 60 percent of respondents to Gartner’s own recent CEO survey said the idea that the internet of things would replace millions of workers over the next decade-and-a-half was a “futurist fantasy,” according to SiliconANGLE. In health care, it’s hard to imagine that CIOs have much attention to devote to the internet of things amid the Meaningful Use and ICD-10 requirements they’re up against, although, as Jennifer Dennard wrote, health IT nowadays is much more than that.

The internet of things will get here. But it will probably develop in a piecemeal fashion, not in the dramatic way that Gartner envisions. Lots of “things” will get connected as companies see business reasons to put sensors in and bring them online. It will arise ad hoc from existing projects, with some industries joining the trend earlier than others.

When it does get here, there’s a good chance it won’t even be called the internet of things. In 2005, after all, Gartner was calling it the “real-world web.”

It was also predicting: “By 2015, wirelessly networked sensors in everything we own will form a new Web.”