Robin Farmanfarmaian, a major driving force behind building the successful medical conference at Singularity University, has spent most of her career focused on making a positive impact on medicine and healthcare. Robin is the Founding Executive Producer of Exponential Medicine and the Vice President of Strategic Relations for Singularity University. Connect with Robin on Twitter and LinkedIn.
It’s midnight, a child is running a high fever, and the hospital is a long way away. Instead of panicking and rushing him to the emergency room, his mother puts a device on his forehead that reads vital signs like Dr. Spock’s tricorder on “Star Trek.” The device sends the data to a physician via the Internet, and the mother receives her son’s diagnosis. It’s just a common cold, treatable with Tylenol, orange juice, and plenty of rest.
OK, so the Scanadu health tracker is still just a prototype, but right now, any patient with a smartphone can simply take a photo of a bad burn, send it to his or her physician, and find out whether the injury requires a trip to the hospital or just some aloe. Telemedicine, which connects physicians and patients via electronic communication, is traveling at warp speed toward a bright, collaborative future between technology and medicine that will benefit the entire healthcare system.
New gadgets are educating patients on their own bodies and allowing them to monitor their health from home. Innovative tools now enable doctors to advise and treat patients from around the world, and improved data storage and processing devices are allowing patients and physicians to input, read, and share medical records with the touch of a few buttons.
But to take advantage of telemedicine’s potential, we need to figure out payment procedures and persuade more doctors and hospitals to offer telemedicine options.
The Benefits of Telemedicine Technology
Here are a few of the changes telemedicine will bring as implementation expands:
Cost reductions: By using new technology, patients and hospitals will see a significant decrease in costs associated with medical care. When more patients use telemedicine and stay home for their exams, consultations, and follow-ups, healthcare facilities and hospitals will need fewer support staff and have lower overhead costs. Doctors and hospitals will be able to process more patients and pass the savings on to all of them.
Greater patient engagement: Telemedicine makes the whole process of “visiting” the doctor easier for the patient, who won’t need to take time off work or travel a long distance for an appointment. Consultations and other interactions — such as requesting prescription refills, asking follow-up questions, or sharing test results — will be easier. This added convenience will also increase patient compliance, resulting in improved health outcomes.
Reduction in disease transmission: Waiting rooms, exam rooms, and hospitals are hotbeds for germs and viruses. Telemedicine reduces the risk of transmission for anyone with a weakened or compromised immune system. Sick patients can communicate with their doctors from home through video and data connections, rather than bring their germs with them to clinics and hospitals.
Increased patient pools: New portable medical diagnostic devices means there’s no need to travel to a clinic or hospital. Doctors will be able to consult with and treat patients around the world, from rural towns across America to remote areas of East Africa. Patients who face a three-day walk to the nearest village or hours of driving to the nearest emergency room will soon have immediate access to the best doctors from around the world.
Examples of Telemedicine Technology Advancing Medicine
Recent advancements in technology — such as wearable gadgets, pocket-sized diagnostic devices, and centralized patient record storage in the cloud — have made healthcare convenient, portable, personalized, and more affordable.
A few recent standouts are poised to take telemedicine to the next level.
Cloud Solutions: EMRs in general aren’t easily transferable among hospitals and healthcare facilities, and they’re labor-intensive for physicians. But this will change as external servers become more readily used.
A few EMRs are being stored on external servers, such as CareCloud and Practice Fusion, where they can be accessed by any physician — with permission — around the globe. If a patient switches doctors, requires medical treatment while traveling, or needs emergency surgery, each physician will have quick access to the same medical files and a complete medical history with just a few keystrokes.
Tricorders: Tricorders aren’t just for sci-fi conventions anymore. Real handheld diagnostic devices are beginning to make many aspects of medicine fast, cheap, and portable.
- Gene-Radar: Nanobiosym’s iPad-sized device, which won the Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE, analyzes a sample of blood, saliva, or other bodily fluids. When a sample is placed on a disposable nanochip and inserted into the device, the Gene-Radar can detect the presence of disease pathogens in less than an hour. It’s already been successful at testing for HIV, AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and E. coli.
- Scanadu Scout: When placed on the temple, this palm-sized device measures heart rate, temperature, oxygen levels, and blood pressure, and it even provides an electrocardiogram reading. The information is then sent via Bluetooth to a smartphone app, where it’s tracked over time. The app helps users understand how different activities, relationships, foods, and environments affect their body; it will even send alerts if any vital signs seem troubling.
Expanded Internet/Mobile Phone Coverage: Most of these new devices require an Internet and/or mobile phone connection to store, analyze, or share information. Whether it’s across the world or simply across town, wider coverage is vital to the expansion of telemedicine. Companies such as AT&T are continuing to expand 4G LTE coverage to rural areas around the U.S., while others are developing innovative ways to expand Internet coverage to remote developing countries. For example, Google’s Project Loon is testing balloon-powered Internet near New Zealand’s South Island.
Smartphone Apps/Attachments: Many companies are developing apps and attachments that allow consumers to use their smartphones as monitoring and diagnostic devices. Other health apps get patients more engaged in their own health by making the entire process more convenient.
- CellScope: This mobile microscope attachment allows parents to check for ear infections from home.
- EyeNetra: This attachment and app can be used to measure the eye’s refractive error to determine a prescription for glasses or contacts.
Making Telemedicine a Reality
Despite the benefits that telemedicine is poised to bring worldwide, there are still two main aspects that are limiting expansion:
- Who Pays? There are still a lot of questions concerning payments and discounts. Will insurance companies cover any of the costs? Will Medicare support the programs? How much of the cost will patients bear, and how much will hospitals be responsible for? These issues need to be resolved through collaborative talks among insurance companies, hospitals, and tech companies to enable consumers more access to telemedicine opportunities.
- Hospital Compliance: To make healthcare available to areas that need it most, more doctors and hospitals must begin offering telemedicine options. Tech companies must educate physicians and healthcare facilities on all of the telemedicine opportunities, as well as how implementation of these programs will expand their patient pools and benefit their facilities. Consumers can also drive telemedicine adoption by directly asking their doctors and hospitals to make telemedicine options available.
Telemedicine can provide affordable, convenient care to a vast pool of patients. It has the potential to improve the quality of care, lower costs, improve patients’ health, and ultimately save lives. The devices and technologies are here; it’s up to us to take advantage of them.