Although the concept of telehealth has existed for decades, it’s been relatively slow to catch on. Getting patients to feel comfortable with the idea of online care—and finding medical professionals who felt confident about conducting their work in a remote setting—has not been easy. Even with willing participants and infrastructure in place, bureaucratic red tape meant providers faced an uphill battle when it came to legally treating patients and being reimbursed for their virtual care.
As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Social distancing and shelter-in-place practices due to COVID-19 have forced non-urgent healthcare providers to close their doors and pushed many patients to seek care remotely. In response, and for the first time, the federal government has empowered doctors to use telehealth to treat Medicare patients. Many state governments and private insurers have followed suit; in fact, several of the nation’s largest insurance companies have waived copays to encourage telehealth visits. COVID-19 has illuminated three key lessons that paint a positive picture of the future of telehealth.
Lesson 1: Adoption is feasible
With barriers to entry reduced and circumstances forcing providers and patients to reconsider technology tools, telehealth services are scaling rapidly. Before COVID-19 hit California, the all-time daily high for Stanford Children’s Health was 35 televisits. Recently, their clinicians conducted 500 in one day. The Cleveland Clinic logged more than 60,000 telemedicine visits in March alone. Prior to March, the health system averaged about 3,400 telehealth visits per month; an increase of more than 1,700%.
It could be a mistake to assume this trend will die out following the outbreak. After all, remote healthcare allows patients to be cared for more efficiently, taking the strain off healthcare facilities while reducing operating costs and common healthcare-related infections.
This may just be a tipping point in the wider adoption of telehealth. IT vendor Sykes recently surveyed 2,000 American adults about their perceptions of telehealth amidst COVID-19 and how it could impact their approach to telehealth in the future. More than half of respondents said the pandemic has increased their willingness to try telehealth. And, an overwhelming number of those who have tried telehealth services said they were satisfied enough with their experience that they have already or will consider scheduling another telehealth visit in the future.
Any marketer will tell you word-of-mouth promotion is the most reliable way to drive sales—as satisfied patients begin to share their experiences with friends and family, it’s not difficult to imagine consumer interest in telehealth services will increase and motivate lawmakers, providers, and insurance administrators to embrace a new healthcare paradigm.
Lesson 2: Everything is connected
It’s widely known that people who live in densely populated cities are exposed to air pollution, and pollution can have a negative impact on long-term health. Though the devastation associated with COVID-19 cannot be overstated, the fact of the matter is, it’s also alleviated environmental stressors and a healthy environment makes for healthier people.
This illustrates a fundamental aspect of healthcare that isn’t always acknowledged: it has never and will never exist in a bubble. Just as healthcare represents an essential set of services that exist as part of a larger ecosystem, telehealth represents one type of service that is part of a connectivity ecosystem known as Smart Cities.
Smart Cities use connected devices, sensors, lights, and meters to collect and analyze data that is used to improve infrastructure, public utilities, and essential services. A report from the McKinsey Global Institute found that smart city technologies could improve some key quality-of-life indicators by as much as 30 percent.
Here’s one example: according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, the vast majority of people say they would prefer to live the rest of their lives at home, rather than move into residential care, but current gaps in technology make this a risky proposition. Imagine an elderly person who is living alone is being monitored remotely by a wearable sensor. Typically, that sensor sends automated data to their healthcare team to alert them to irregularities that could indicate an underlying condition.
But maybe that sensor can also detect if the person falls and is unable to call for help. The right device could contact emergency services to send an ambulance. After EMTs determine the patient needs to be transported to a healthcare facility, Smart City infrastructure could manage the stoplights on the way to the hospital, providing a fast and unimpeded drive to the closest ER with the shortest wait time and availability of staff to handle the person’s medical needs.
The truth is, today’s telehealth services have only begun scratching the surface of what’s possible in terms of connectivity and healthcare. Though this anecdote is currently science fiction, it’s possible in the near future and demonstrates the true potential of telehealth—not just a handful of isolated applications operated by individuals, but a set of services that exist within the context of a more connected world.
Lesson 3: Connectivity is everything
When COVID-19 first forced many of us to begin working and learning from home, some worried that telecommunications providers would not be able to meet the surge in demand. Fortunately, that has not turned out to be the case: cable networks have performed without a material impact on customer experience 99.6% of the time, according to the NCTA — The Internet & Television Association. But this brings up an important point.
To move forward with a true Smart City ecosystem, we must consider the underlying infrastructure it will take to support it. The biggest factor that could potentially damage the realization of Smart Cities is a lack of connectivity. Without a strong connection between devices, Smart Cities technologies would be impossible to implement.
The good news? The cable industry is already building the wireless connectivity and networking protocols we need to make these concepts a reality. Cable’s 10G broadband technology platform will offer the low-latency connectivity medical and monitoring agencies require, while its high capacity and enhanced security will help give rise to a new wave of remote diagnostics and telemedicine technologies.
By working with experts from other fields—including telecommunications, architecture, engineering, technology, emergency services, and government—healthcare professionals can provide the medical insights needed to anticipate future trends and help create the standards and best practices needed to integrate IoT and healthcare applications.
Smart Cities will be most impactful when they operate across sectors to connect healthcare, human services, public safety, utilities, and the environment. Like so many important areas of our lives, emerging technologies and pervasive networking have the potential to reinvent healthcare as we know it. The pandemic may have been the catalyst for change, but hopefully, telehealth’s benefits will inspire more lasting and widespread transformation.
About Mark Dzuban
Mark Dzuban is the president and CEO of SCTE•ISBE, a professional membership organization for cable telecommunications and allied industries that is leading the acceleration and deployment of technology.