Ubiquitous mobile technology like cell phones and smart watches play an increasingly important role in our health. You can have a checkup with your physician via the camera on your phone. If your heart rate becomes irregular, your Apple Watch will let you know (proven accuracy notwithstanding). Just the thought of using a wristwatch to monitor your health would have elicited mocking laughter in the not-too-distant past.
Telehealth and wearables have made amazing strides in a short period and will play an indispensable part in health care moving forward – especially when it comes to improving health in remote areas where access to care becomes more challenging. But, if you’re wearing a smart watch and you suffer a heart attack, getting a notification about it will not save your life.
Highly time-sensitive medical events require a new kind of telehealth, which I call “tele-treatment.” That means bringing treatment to patients rather than wasting precious minutes transporting people to a hospital that might be hours away. Tele-treatment uses existing technology, like remote-operated medical robots, combined with physician expertise, to expedite time to treatment, grant access to care to inaccessible parts of the world and make the best doctors available to anyone, anywhere.
18 million people in the world die annually from cardiovascular disease, including stroke and heart attack. Tele-treatment could reduce that number while also curtailing the number of people left disabled from not receiving treatment quickly enough.
Where’s my Doc?
Consider this: if you cut your finger at home while prepping dinner, you know where you would go to get stitches. You likely live near an urgent care or a local hospital that could take care of you quickly.
But what if you had a stroke? Neither the urgent care down the street nor the small local hospital have a neuro-interventionalist who could treat you. The closest hospital with a comprehensive stroke center could require costly travel time – because your brain loses two million neurons per minute during a stroke. Many states don’t have a single comprehensive stroke center, creating scenarios where patients spend hours in transit while their condition deteriorates.
A cut to the finger should not threaten your life and is rightfully simple to treat. But we could save tens of thousands of lives by making it almost as simple to treat deadly and debilitating conditions with a small window for effective treatment. Applying tele-treatment to stroke care would lead to solutions such as ambulances or local health centers equipped with a remote interventional lab – consisting of a robotic device to perform the intervention, controlled by a remote neuro-interventionalist using video game-style joysticks and a monitor. Not only would that save time otherwise wasted in transport to the hospital, but the best neuro-interventionalist in the world could perform an intervention, regardless of location.
Shrink the Globe
Tele-treatment has an obvious beneficiary in rural parts of the world that lack the infrastructure of a major city. But, in a world connected to the internet with fiberoptic cables and the emergence of 5G wireless capability, we can bring the highest level of care to an endless list of scenarios, including:
– The battlefield: A tele-treatment center close to the battlefield would give soldiers a level of care never received before and would keep physicians out of the line of fire, providing care for their patients from a safe, remote location.
– Cruise ships offshore: Passengers who suffer a heart attack or stroke on a cruise ship today have virtually no recourse to receive the treatment they need. Passengers could have peace of mind in knowing that their cruise line could treat life-threatening conditions with a robotic device connected to a physician back on the mainland via 5G technology.
– Congested areas: If Queens, New York was not a New York City borough, it would be the fourth-largest city in the U.S., but it does not have a comprehensive stroke treatment center. If you had a stroke at rush hour, traffic on the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan could determine the level of disability you would face for the rest of your life.
Solving the specialist shortage
Patients also find themselves traveling great distances to connect with the right doctor because we have a worldwide shortage of specialists in certain fields. For example, the healthcare consulting company PYA cited “geographic maldistribution” of cardiologists in the U.S. They found Midwestern and Western states had “one-quarter to one-half” the number of cardiologists relative to patient population as states with higher population density. That issue will only grow more severe as average life spans continue to rise.
Consider when people need to have routine knee surgery. They can easily research doctors online and evaluate their credentials before choosing the one they think is the most skilled. Patients fly from all over the U.S. to have routine surgeries performed by renowned orthopedic surgeons who made themselves famous by operating on professional athletes.
Given that an event such as a stroke leaves no time to spend researching, tele-treatment would allow for a similar level of access to the most highly sought-after physicians. In the most urgent time of need, first responders could connect the patient with the right physician for their circumstance.
Telehealth has made amazing advancements in a very short time, but we have the tools to take the next step already in front of us. Tele-treatment will be the next evolution of telehealth and it has the potential to help make a real impact on the death and disability attributable to lack of access to care. In the 21st century, we have no excuse to not provide the appropriate care for patients in need.
About Mark Toland
Mark Toland is the President and CEO of Corindus Vascular Robotics, a global technology leader in robotic-assisted vascular interventions. The Company’s CorPath® platform is the first FDA-cleared medical device to bring robotic precision to percutaneous coronary and vascular procedures.