The COVID-19 or novel coronavirus outbreak has forced millions of people around the world to stay in their homes, with unprecedented lockdowns and community quarantines occurring worldwide. Doctors are overworked and hospitals are crowded, but patients still need their regular care, with or without COVID-19 symptoms. Because of this, more and more patients have turned to the best alternative: telemedicine.
Telemedicine companies have received tens of thousands of new patients across the country, and are struggling to keep up with the ever-growing demand for telehealth solutions. Telemedicine is going through a period of enormous growth, and it is no longer just a side option for most people but the best option available.
So what is the future of telemedicine? There are still various obstacles that must be overcome, but with the right pressure and interest, telemedicine can thrive as we now have consumer access to the technologies and software required for telemedicine to be truly effective. In this article, we explain what those obstacles and technologies are, and how telemedicine might look in a few years.
Telemedicine and Coronavirus: Why Just Now
The first examples of telemedicine can be traced back to the 1950s, with doctors offering patients consultations over the phone. The top telemedicine companies that we see today generally began in the early 2000s, but were still crippled by the lack of high-speed internet and technology in most U.S. households.
Telemedicine has been an option for many years, but tradition and stigma against virtual visits has kept people trusting the traditional in-office doctor visits. For most people, much of the digital world still seems unfamiliar, and it is widely believed that something as important as your health should be handled in the real world rather than the virtual.
But the recent coronavirus outbreak across the world has changed things. Millions of people are locked in their homes but still require the advice and aid of a doctor. Telemedicine has become the alternative for most patients.
At a recent summit on innovation held by MassChallenge on the topic of the coronavirus crisis, Vice President of Digital Health Strategy at the American Medical Association, Meg Barron, had this to say about telemedicine:
“If there is any silver lining it’s that the [American Medical Association] along with many other organizations have been working for telehealth adoption for some time. Obviously, it is really having its moment right now and [has been] able to step up to keep primary care providers and patients safe on the front lines.”
According to Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, John Brownstein,
“We are doing more virtual visits in a given day than we did the entire proceeding year, so things can change. I don’t see us going back to the way things were, in a positive way. I think we’ve opened physicians’ eyes, opened up the administrators’ eyes, patients are recognizing the value. It has focused our team to deploy this at scale and these kinds of digital practices become core to the practice of medicine going forward.”
Telemedicine is definitely the future of healthcare. The questions now are: 1) What are the obstacles in its path; and 2) What technologies will help improve telemedicine moving forward?
Obstacles for Telemedicine
There are a few obstacles standing in the way of telemedicine becoming the main system of patient care. These are:
- Lack of Stakeholder Interest: The major proponents in promoting telemedicine are the healthcare professionals – clinics, hospitals, and insurance industry, but these businesses simply haven’t been interested in helping telemedicine develop. The main reason for this is they are content with existing models of healthcare and hospital admissions and are reluctant to evolve away into something new without being forced to do it.
- Patient Acceptance: The U.S. public interest also needs to accept virtual care health systems, but prior to the COVID-19 outbreak there was no reason for any major shift in interest. Patients must become more familiar with telemedicine, the level of care it can provide, and learn to trust that it can truly replace physical doctor visits.
- Physician Cooperation: Doctors spend years learning their craft, and telemedicine would require additional training and new sets of guidelines and medical regulations. They would also have to learn how to confidently diagnose patients without physical examinations, which can be limiting and something many doctors simply wouldn’t agree with.
- Legal and Liability Issues: Moving to the digital world can always be frustrating and difficult when it comes to legal and liability issues. Putting your appointments online and client information completely on shared networks increases the risk of hackers and data compromise. Rules and regulations must be rewritten with telemedicine in mind, and clinics have to equip themselves with high-end IT technology.
- Insurance: Until recently, it was very difficult to have an insurance company cover even just one virtual care appointment. Insurance companies need to incorporate space for telemedicine to allow the public to use it without paying out of pocket.
Telemedicine Tomorrow: Key Technologies
In the near future, major companies such as Amazon and Google will invest heavily in telemedicine growth to be part of the frontrunners of companies offering telehealth services across the country and the world.
We can expect telemedicine healthcare services to be spread across a multitude of private and government-owned service networks, with some for general public access and others with private networks for secure links between patients, doctors, clinics, and hospitals.
The key technologies to help develop the expansion and growth of telemedicine are already available today, and simply need to be pushed into place and usage. These key technologies are:
- 5G: While 4G networks are sufficient for our telemedicine usages today – video conferences between patients and doctors – the upcoming 5G network will provide the necessary increase in bandwidth for even more ambitious health system virtual care uses, such as diagnosis and examination methods that involve more than just live video services.
- Big Data: Big Data is an existing technology branch that already has its place in healthcare regulations. With proper usage, it can be used to provide on-demand patient historical records, allowing telehealth healthcare providers immediate information to a new patient wherever one may be.
- AI and Machine Learning: With sophisticated implementation of AI and Machine Learning Technologies, doctors will have greater analysis tools of their patient data, allowing them to immediately compare data with historical records on the shared medical network, evaluate more effectively and form more informed opinions.
- Implantables: Implantable technology will be a huge future proponent of telemedicine programs. Implanted chips can be inserted into the patient’s skin, allowing real-time monitoring and care of their vital signs – blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, glucose levels, blood oxygen, cholesterol, mental health signs, and more. This gives the doctors the information they need to better evaluate patients across distances with no need for a physical examination. We may start to see widespread growth of this technology in the next five years.
- Augmented and Mixed Reality: When video calls are no longer enough, augmented and mixed reality glasses will equip the physician with a more enhanced virtual view of the patient, allowing them to turn a 2D video call into a 3D experience, as if the patient is in the office.
Tomorrow’s telemedicine services may seem cool and futuristic, but the technologies we use as telemedicine grow will play a crucial part in limiting and controlling future outbreaks that we may face. Developing, adopting, and accepting these new methods of health care services as a culture is not only necessary, but our responsibility to better streamline patient-doctor experiences.
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