Technology is revolutionizing healthcare in every way possible. Around the world, patients are finding that a doctor’s visit can happen as easily on their phone as it can in a medical office.
Take Leroy Strubberg, for example — an 80-year-old Missourian and recovering stroke patient who lives 60 miles away from any major city. In an effort to reduce emergency room visits, Mercy Hospital set up a virtual care program to test out with him and 249 other patients. The hospital supplied Leroy with an iPad and a blood pressure cuff that plugs into the iPad to relay his vitals. Mercy healthcare professionals videochat with Leroy and others like him twice a week. So far, they’ve been able to reduce emergency room visits by patients in the pilot program by 33%.
Thankfully, Leroy isn’t the only patient getting newfound access to highly convenient care. In 2013, there were 350,000 telehealth visits. According to IHS Technology, that number is projected to balloon to 7 million in 2018. The global market for telehealth services will grow, too; Mordor Intelligence predicts it will reach $34 billion by 2020.
This is a huge market that has many implications for the future of healthcare. That said, wouldn’t it make sense for the government to get a little more involved in backing these efforts? Right now, about half of our healthcare spend is used for the sickest 5% of American patients, says Gavin Helton, medical director of Mercy Virtual Care. What if we could lower the cost of caring for that 5% without lowering their quality of care? We think it’s possible.
Why Videoconferencing Works for Healthcare
Anyone who has used Skype or FaceTime to connect with friends or family knows how convenient videoconferencing can be. Videoconferencing is a convenient way for healthcare professionals to meet with patients like Leroy, and to meet with each other. As has been documented, videoconferencing can:
- Remove language barriers. Translation software has reached near-human accuracy, making it possible to help people all around the world.
- Reduce the time spent in doctors’ offices, particularly for patients with chronic illness who make frequent visits to their doctor.
- Make it easier for patients with limited mobility to see their doctor.
- Allow for more flexibility in scheduling. Without the need to travel, there can be much more flexibility in scheduling appointments. This alone makes patients more willing to make and keep appointments.
- Help medical professionals communicate with each other. Videoconferencing facilitates doctor-to-doctor/nurse/pharmacist communication, knowledge-sharing, and training.
- Permit multiple people to be at appointments. Location doesn’t matter. Numerous medical professionals can be present, as can any support people on the patient’s side. This makes decision-making and information dissemination faster and more accurate, ultimately improving the standard of care.
- Let medical professionals see patients while at home or traveling. This scheduling flexibility increases medical professionals’ availability and gives patients more options for when they want to see their doctor or therapist. Greater availability also means greater income potential for medical professionals.
There are unique benefits for every field of healthcare, particularly in the areas of mental health and remote health.
Mental health professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatrists, can see patients from home, eliminating many of the costs associated with having a separate office and making it easier for patients to connect with them in emergencies.
For patients in remote locations, traveling to the nearest doctor can be expensive, time-consuming, and exhausting. With videoconferencing, initial screenings can be done remotely, eliminating the need for patients to travel long distances just to have a general practitioner take a look at a mole they found on their back.
Not only is this more efficient than traveling to see a doctor, it also provides peace of mind to patients who don’t want to wait to get a medical opinion. It’s a giant leap towards on-demand care. However, we could be doing more.
Is the Rides to Wellness Initiative our Best Effort?
This year, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) launched the Rides to Wellness Initiative to increase partnerships between health and transportation providers to help increase access to healthcare.
There’s no question that a lack of access to transportation is a barrier to receiving healthcare under our current healthcare system. As the FTA notes, an estimated 3.6 million Americans miss or delay non-emergency medical care every year because of transportation issues.
But instead of bringing patients to doctors, why not use videoconferencing to bring doctors to patients? Imagine what it would look like if we eliminated the need to physically visit the doctor every time you needed a consultation. Imagine if meeting a doctor was as simple as arranging a video call with a friend.
Leroy is a perfect example of this possibility, but scaling services to be available to a larger number of people would require a digital shift in the government’s focus.
What the Government’s Digital Focus Could Look Like
Ensuring high-quality videoconferencing for all Americans wouldn’t be too complicated. It simply requires a good Internet connection and a decent computer or mobile device.
Most people (84% of our population) already have these things, but to make videoconferencing and telehealth services ubiquitous, the government would need a strategy to:
- Ensure elderly people also have access to the internet and a device. (This would also help improve their quality of life in general.)
- Support insurance companies in covering the cost of telehealth so that its use and availability spreads.
Many insurance carriers already offer an urgent-care phone line — it’s not a leap to suggest that it will soon be possible to access an urgent-care video line, where medical professionals will be able to see the patient and better evaluate them as a result.
We hope the government will support telehealth and adopt a digital focus in healthcare. It has the power to do so.
Considerations for Better Videoconferencing
It’s exciting to think about the possibilities for telehealth and videoconferencing for healthcare. Yet there are a few aspects that need to be carefully considered.
Security and HIPAA Compliance
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), governs how personal health information is stored, shared, and used. It requires healthcare providers to protect their patients’ health information.
This requires a high level of security and means existing videoconferencing providers are not always appropriate for telehealth. Skype, for example, cannot be used for telehealth, and HIPAA compliance requires more than just encryption.
It’s important that convenience does not overrule patient security and HIPAA regulations.
There is no universal standard for healthcare providers. Different doctors use different technologies, and these technologies do not all “speak” to each other. For effective telehealth, a cohesive system will need to be developed.
Anyone who has struggled to understand why their printer isn’t working knows how frustrating technology can be. A telehealth system needs to use simple and common technology so it becomes second-nature to those who are not as comfortable with technology and don’t know how to troubleshoot technical issues.
These issues are not insurmountable. If the government commits to a digital focus in healthcare, allocates resources to telehealth, and supports insurance companies in covering videoconferencing, healthcare providers will be able to offer secure, convenient, and high-quality telehealth services to all Americans. We can’t wait to see that happen, and based on the cost-savings and convenience, we’re sure you’ll agree.