Telemedicine – The future of healthcare?

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With each passing day in this new, unexpected world that we find ourselves in, it seems increasingly clear that healthcare technologies will never be the same as they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. Cutting-edge tools are already enabling clinicians to streamline and expedite care delivery in a range of settings to help doctors more quickly diagnose coronavirus cases, but when the outbreak eventually fades away these new technologies will not. The use of artificial intelligence, robotics and video conferencing will be pivotal to the future of keeping ourselves healthy as these tools permeate every corner of the market.

It is in times of intense stress and urgency that our species becomes most innovative; the coronavirus outbreak has proven no different, as exhibited by a telemedicine-driven healthcare system proposed by Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv. This model was introduced to physically isolate and treat Israeli patients without the need for expensive screening equipment for doctors, as reported by The Jerusalem Post1. Furthermore, Chinese doctors in government-or self-imposed quarantines became reliant on video conferencing tools such as Zoom to advise patients remotely2. Though the number of China’s total active cases has almost fallen to zero and hospitals have reopened, many continue to capitalize on the affordability and convenience of video calling. After all, as declared by the American Medical Association and Wellness Council, almost 75% of hospital visits are ‘either unnecessary or could be handled safely and effectively over the phone or video’. In light of the pandemic, hospitals have seen reductions in visits for minor injuries due to the risk of increased exposure to the Virus. Inevitably as the time and monetary savings of remote check-ups become more apparent these alternatives will grow to dominate the system. Already in 2018, the telehealth market was valued at $15.6 billion with predictions of exponential growth throughout the decade.

An app eliminates the delay that accompanies appointments, allowing conditions to be diagnosed and treated earlier

The NHS, alongside healthcare systems all over the world, has been significantly overwhelmed by the influx of COVID patients, which has side-lined routine appointments. In an effort to overcome this, technology such as the NHS app for self-diagnosis is becoming increasingly popular as a way for patients to treat minor ailments domestically. Furthermore, utilising an app eliminates the delay that accompanies appointments, allowing conditions to be diagnosed and treated earlier—before health deteriorates further. Of course, these apps are not yet as reliable as in-person assessments but they are still helpful in taking some strain off healthcare professionals on the front-lines. At-home testing kits also achieve this, by reducing the number of hospital visits for COVID testing. Overall, this reflects a general trend towards domestic healthcare, where simple procedures such as swab tests no longer require hospital visits, similar to how pregnancy tests already work.

Additionally, the pandemic has shone new light on the potential of AI in healthcare. A computer using the patient’s entire medical history could supply personalised medicine in minutes and we’ve already seen how the efficacy of computer diagnosis can be greater than that of a human doctor. Doctors have known for decades that medicine lethal to one patient can be life-saving to another, but the time constraints of a hospital appointment are insufficient for a doctor to fully analyse a patient’s genetics and family history, whereas an AI could handle such a task to deliver incredibly personalised medicine. Perhaps the biggest advantage of these digitized doctors, though, is that the performance of a computer is the same irrespective of whether the patient is at home or in the hospital. Future smartphones could incorporate an AI of this scale, to allow for remote diagnostics of more complex diseases that would usually require the physical presence of a doctor.

For serious medical concerns, robotic carers would not serve as a substitute hospital, but chances are the queue would be much shorter

Even outside of our present pandemic, healthcare systems appear to be under strain, with a 2017 survey3 stating that it takes an average of 24 days to schedule a new patient-physician appointment. This waiting period could be reduced through the development of affordable, domestic robot companions that guide the patients through the treatment procedure in lieu of a  doctor. The robot could display diagrams on a screen and work alongside video conferencing with a human doctor to provide the same quality of treatment as received in-person. In fact, a study by Fruit Street of outcomes for 8,000 patients showed there were no differences in the efficacy of care between in-person and telehealth visits. Of course, for more serious medical concerns, these robotic carers would not serve as a substitute hospital, but chances are the queue would be much shorter. Furthermore, telemedicine promises to broaden access to medical care, especially for those in regions with limited access to medical facilities. With 20% of Americans living in rural areas with no access to healthcare, according to the American Hospital Association, telehealth could be key to making medicine more attainable.

A revolution in healthcare is on the horizon

The benefits offered by telemedicine have been possible for years but it is only now, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, that they have been truly realized as the need for remote healthcare has been propelled to the forefront of public policy. Americans who have saved dramatically on healthcare these past months (up to $50 per appointment, according to the American Council on Science and Health) due to virtual appointments will almost certainly opt for these services to continue post-COVID. Then again, perhaps no amount of software can ever replace a human when it comes to a matter as sensitive as our health. A cancer patient, for example, will always prefer a diagnosis given gently by a human doctor. All in all, a revolution in healthcare is on the horizon. We have already witnessed vast improvements in infant mortality, life expectancy and human development through technologies such as vaccination and antibiotics. These technologies have become the drivers of a happier, healthier society—could telemedicine be next?


Sources and further reading

Title image by Lizzie Daly

1. The Jerusalem Post: ‘Israel’s Tyto Care to prevent coronavirus exposure from patients at Sheba’ – https://www.jpost.com/HEALTH-SCIENCE/Israels-Tyto-Care-to-prevent-coronavirus-exposure-from-patients-at-Sheba-618121

2. CNBC: ‘What America can learn from China’s use of robots and telemedicine to combat the coronavirus’ – https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/18/how-china-is-using-robots-and-telemedicine-to-combat-the-coronavirus.html

3. 2017 Survey of Physician Appointment Wait Times, Merritt Hawkins Team August 31, 2017 – https://www.merritthawkins.com/Pages/ArticleDetails.aspx?id=41050