In March 2020, many office workers packed up their bags under the mandate of their employers, assuming they’d be working from home for a few weeks so the coronavirus could “blow over.” Fast-forward two years: many of those same employees have yet to step foot back into their old offices, and some never will again.
A similar trend is playing out in healthcare. When COVID-19 started, many health systems rapidly adopted virtual care models as a matter of necessity to keep as many non-COVID patients out of hospitals as possible. But with new COVID variants continuing to emerge, not to mention the convenience virtual care offers, it’s becoming increasingly clear telemedicine wasn’t a “temporary fix” — it’s here to stay.
The question becomes, how do we evolve and improve telemedicine so that it’s an even more viable option permanently?
The current state of telemedicine and its limitations
At the onset of COVID-19 in April 2020, telehealth utilization grew 78 times from where it was just in February 2020, according to McKinsey. It has since gone down from those astronomical numbers, but telemedicine remains a popular option. A more recent study from market research firm SSRS found that nearly one-third of U.S. adults have had a telehealth visit for themselves or a dependent during the pandemic.
Telemedicine’s benefits are clear — not only does it free up hospital and clinic space, it’s easier for patients who no longer have to commute to a facility, while also offering greater privacy and comfort. Telemedicine may also help alleviate medical staff burnout and healthcare’s labor shortage, as it can automate certain tasks (or outsource them to patients), thereby reducing the burden and stress on practitioners.
That said, telemedicine is still nascent. COVID-19 rapidly accelerated its adoption, but more investment and innovation is necessary. Accessibility remains a central obstacle: according to the FCC, 21 million Americans still don’t have high-speed internet access. Though the recently passed infrastructure bill includes efforts to expand broadband to rural areas and allocates funding for telehealth projects, many people simply don’t have the at-home connectivity needed to facilitate remote health today.
Additionally, there’s the challenge of changing ingrained behaviors. Many people have become accustomed to receiving care only via in-person environments, thus it will take time to educate the broader public about telehealth’s benefits and ease of use.
But perhaps one of the greatest limitations of telemedicine is that its use cases are still narrow.
Encompassing a broader scope of care
Telemedicine is often broken down into different applications in which telehealth can be used. These can be classified as “in-person” visits, mobile health, and remote patient monitoring. Most of us are familiar with the “in-person” application of telemedicine, which is where a patient can speak with a nurse or doctor remotely — using video conferencing software — to discuss their symptoms and receive potential diagnoses. This helps save time for both patients and healthcare staff and potentially allows the patient to receive care in a more efficient manner.
But to make telemedicine a truly viable form of care long-term, we need to push past that. The other applications of telemedicine will make the field significantly more impactful. It will move beyond simply being able to communicate with medical staff remotely, and more toward offsetting basic care and conducting remote diagnostics. Companies like Tytocare are already making huge strides in these areas, offering on-demand medical exams, post-op patient monitoring and expert remote consults.
Being able to offer certain types of medical care remotely could have a transformational impact on the healthcare industry, particularly in senior living and eldercare. A 2021 study from Capital Caring Health found that nearly 90% of adults over age 50 want to remain at home and “age in place.” But it can be difficult, especially without the right equipment and technology in the home.
The concept of mobile health will allow a senior who may be living alone to use web portals or text messages to communicate with their care team. This access can bring both the patient and caregiver more peace of mind by enabling the patient to ask questions or raise concerns by simply sending a message rather than waiting for the next appointment. Additionally, leveraging smartphones and other mobile technology can help with major healthcare concerns like medication adherence, which can dramatically improve senior patient outcomes.
Additionally, the use of remote patient monitoring will improve our ability to conduct more diagnostics from home. Diagnostic tests are an important way for medical professionals to determine the cause of a patient’s symptoms or ailments. But traditionally, these tests required devices or technology only found in a doctor’s office. This will change as we see more wearables and medical (IoMT) devices being sent home so that patients can continuously track things like temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, or glucose levels, and doctors can monitor those metrics remotely. In the future, advanced remote patient monitoring could enable the creation of something like a “check engine soon” light that we are familiar with in our automobiles, but for the human body.
What’s the path forward, technically speaking…?
This next era of telemedicine sounds promising, but how do we get there? It takes more than patient and organizational buy-in — technology will play a crucial role in ensuring telehealth’s long-term expansion.
As mentioned, the success of telemedicine hinges on our ability to address the digital divide. Internet access has become a critical utility, and it’s unacceptable that millions of people still lack reliable broadband. More investments, subsidies, and build-outs (including 5G networks) must be made so that everyone has the ability to access virtual care if and when they need it.
Medical wearables will also be an important technological piece of the puzzle. As this “consumerization” takes root in healthcare, I’d like to see greater collaboration and interoperability between the device manufacturers (Apple, Fitbit, Google, etc.) and actual care providers. The two entities need to securely exchange data and ensure that patients receive a seamless experience and continuity of care.
Beyond that, the cloud will also play a role in telemedicine. In addition to cloud-based collaboration tools that allow patients and medical staff to communicate, HIPAA-compliant cloud services will be used to store medical records so that people can access those files 24/7 from anywhere. Finally, cloud management tools will offer healthcare providers a centralized way to manage and monitor myriad devices and users spread across distributed environments. These cloud platforms can manage patient information and clinical software, while also helping simplify device onboarding and compliance.
A bright outlook
We’ve already seen some of the benefits of telemedicine, but we’re still in the early stages of its maturation. With more investment and innovation in the coming years, I expect virtual care will cement itself as the preferred form of healthcare for many patients. Because of its convenience, telehealth may also incentivize patients to seek care more often, which would be reason enough to prioritize the field’s advancement.
About Doug McDonald
Doug McDonald is Director of Technology in the Office of the CTO at Extreme Networks. He previously worked at Henry Ford Health System, holding responsibilities that included strategy, architecture, implementation and support for all enterprise networking infrastructure equipment including wired/wireless, cellular DAS, location services, spectrum management, route/switch and LAN/WAN across hundreds of medical facilities. He holds an Executive MBA in healthcare leadership and has recently achieved fellow status with the HIMSS organization.