American health is declining. For the second year in a row, the average life expectancy has been lowered, due in large part to the opioid crisis. Obesity is still a pressing concern, along with the slew of diseases it creates a predisposition for, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and type II diabetes, among others. There aren’t enough medical professionals to provide care to all those in need, and the rising cost of insurance creates further exclusion.
It seems like healthcare has a grim future, but there is one light currently shining through everything else. Technology and the advent of telehealth stand to revolutionize care by increasing accessibility, efficiency, and patient outcomes. Wearable devices give providers insight into their patient’s lives, while patients are given more agency and a solid set of tools to be more proactive in their care.
While telehealth is looking like the current best option for turning around the state of medical care in America, there are still some concerns to be ironed out.
For those living in limited access or low population density areas, telehealth provides an incredible opportunity to receive care. For minor, and even moderate, health concerns, patients can access providers to have questions answered or receive a brief consultation. Utilizing video chat means that patients don’t have to drive long distances, take time off work to get to a provider for things like colds, rashes, or prescription refills.
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For those in low-income areas, the benefits are similar. Because telehealth or electronic consultations don’t offer the same level of interactive care that in-person visits do, the cost is often reduced. With a lower price tag and shorter necessary time frame (which means less time off work and lower net cost), the benefits to low-income individuals are enormous.
Obviously, video chat can’t address all major medical concerns, nor should it replace regular wellness visits or diagnostic appointments. However, for basic medical inquiries and routine prescription visits or check-ins, the opportunities for cost and energy reduction are abundant.
One of the ways that hospitals and medical clinics attempt to mitigate the cost of staying open is by seeing more patients per doctor per hour. While this has questionable effects on patient care and satisfaction, telehealth creates an opportunity to see more patients who have specific, preliminary questions without booking an exam room or committing to a full appointment slot.
When patients aren’t seen in-office for every ailment, fewer resources are devoted to their care. While that may seem like something negative, in cases of simple questions that may not require a physical examination, the clinic or facility saves time and resources.
When considering rural communities, telemedicine allows providers to do routine check-ins or care follow up without having to travel in between communities. More people can be reached in a shorter period of time, hopefully allowing medical costs to decrease.
Improving Healthcare Services
Telemedicine and wearable technology open up the door to an interesting opportunity: the remote monitoring of patients to improve follow up care and plan adherence. One of the biggest issues in patient care is getting patients to stick to a plan. That is, providers can set out care plans with all the good intentions in the world, but if patients don’t take their medication, perform their exercises, or otherwise adhere to the instructions, nothing further can be expected.
An astonishing 86 percent of doctors believe that wearable technology can increase their knowledge of patient information, but that isn’t entirely surprising when you consider the capabilities of emerging technology. Phone applications can remind patients to take medicine at a certain time each day, prompt them to perform rehab exercises, or provide an interface to check in with their provider each week. Wearable tech such as smartwatches create an opportunity to monitor blood pressure or heart rate and alert the doctor if vitals go beyond a set point. Physical activity may also be tracked to ensure that patients are getting adequate movement during recovery (or alternately, resting enough).
Electronic health records also allow patient information to be shared instantly between providers with access to the network, rather than waiting on faxes or courier. In an emergency, being able to read a patient’s medical record can be the difference between life and death. In a less dire situation, electronic health records make seeing specialists and receiving integrated care much easier.
Technology brings incredible benefits to healthcare, but there are plenty of kinks to be worked out before the system is perfect. Keeping patient information on electronic records creates vulnerability, as does the transfer of information over networks that aren’t necessarily secure.
Medical facilities may fall victim to hackers who utilize ransomware, holding sensitive patient information hostage unless demands are met. Beyond patient records, live interactions between the patient and provider may be intercepted, causing sensitive information to be released to non-authorized individuals. Similarly, data from wearable devices or treatment plan trackers may be vulnerable to interception if home networks and wireless connections are not secure.
Beyond the technology specific failure, telemedicine may make patients less willing to see their provider, even when it’s merited. Of course, remote visits are useful, but they will never replace physically seeing a doctor and receiving an examination and diagnosis. If patients become over-reliant on distance medicine, important diagnoses may be missed, potentially leading to malpractice suits and forcing a discussion on culpability.
While there are still very valid concerns remaining that likely won’t be resolved without a lot of cooperation and effort, the overall benefit of telehealth is apparent. Providers and patients both stand to benefit from increased access, greater efficiency, and hopefully, better health outcomes across the board.