How IoT can track health supplies

As many states continue to plead for more face masks and shields, the internet of things can help with inventory and supply-chain tracking.

As many states continue to plead for more face masks and shields amid the coronavirus pandemic, some experts are looking at ways to prevent this type of situation from recurring. The answer, they say, is inventory and supply-chain tracking using the internet of things.

“There’s so much that IoT is being used for in the public-safety space and by different governments, but I think the reality is there’s so much more you could actually use it for,” said Dilip Sarangan, global research director for IoT and digital transformation at Frost and Sullivan.

For inventory management, barcode and radio-frequency identification (RFID) readers can scan tags as equipment enters and leaves a public health department’s warehouse, said Michael Sparks, director of government sales at Zebra Technologies. Similarly, first responders can use them onsite to track assets and workers. 

“With the appropriate software, you can, at a glance, know where your assets are, know when they arrive on scene and know who is there and where they are throughout the city, incident or building,” Sparks said.

Another use case is tracking patients. “There are long lines of people to get tested [for COVID-19], and we have applications that can speed that process through automation,” he said.

Specifically, medical personnel collecting samples from potentially positive people can print wristbands onsite that can tie the samples to the patient. That minimizes mistakes in connecting patients and samples at testing labs.

Traditionally, inventories and tracking have been time-consuming pen-and-paper processes, with someone visually verifying the assets and marking a checklist, and then someone else enters the data into a database, leaving room for error.

“The technology, the software, the procedures, the best practices have been well vetted and developed in the commercial world. We’re simply applying those to the first responder world,” Sparks said.

Although it’s gained traction in recent years, IoT technology isn’t that new. Barcode and RFID technology have been around since 1974 and 1948, respectively, and the term “internet of things” was coined in 1999.

“Anything, obviously, that’s ‘connected’ in some way, shape or form falls within the IoT realm,” Sarangan said. “For some reason, people assume that IoT in public safety or IoT in any industry is a new thing. It’s really not…. In reality, it’s anything that’s connected using any type of network.”

He likens IoT to supply-chain management. “Think of it as Amazon for everyone,” Sarangan said. Consumers who buy something from Amazon get regular updates on where their package is, as do shippers and merchants.

“The challenge with an IoT solution when you’re thinking about it from a supply-chain standpoint, it’s not just one company implementing it,” he added. “It’s one company … connected to the supply chains of their customers, their partners, their suppliers – everyone. So, it’s having an end-to-end supply chain that can be monitored. That’s where the value really is.”

COVID-19 stands to have a major impact on the global IoT in health care market, according to MarketsandMarkets, which predicted that it will grow from $55.5 billion in 2019 to $188 billion by 2024. By 2025, that number could be about $1.6 trillion.

Taking a cue from efforts in South Korea and Taiwan, Sarangan said IoT can even help before a disaster strikes. For instance, facial recognition or video surveillance could be used to determine who a person with a high fever came into contact with.

“The whole thing sounds crazy. It sounds like some kind of police state,” he said. However, if the World Health Organization or the United Nations could do that, “that’s where the value comes in.”

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