By Robin Farmanfarmaian
Senior Vice President
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.
That is what we’ll experience in the near future. 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 communications, is traveling at warp speed toward a bright, collaborative future between technology and medicine that will benefit the entire healthcare system.
New gadgets are helping educate 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 at 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 bringing 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 villages in 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: Electronic medical records are now being stored on external servers, like CareCloud and Practice Fusion, where they can be accessed by any physician around the world with permission. 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 Star Trek 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, blood pressure, and even gives 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 and will even send alerts if any of the vital signs seem troubling.
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 the patients bear, and how much will the hospital be responsible for? These issues need to be resolved through collaborative talks among insurance companies, hospitals, and tech companies so that consumers can access more telemedicine opportunities.
- Hospital Compliance: To make healthcare available to areas that need it the 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.
Robin Farmanfarmaian, a major driving force behind founding the successful Exponential Medicine Conference at Singularity University, has spent most of her career focused on making a positive impact on medicine and healthcare. Robin in currently SVP for Arc Programs, VP at INVICTA Medical, and the Executive Director for the Organ Preservation Alliance. Connect with Robin on Twitter and LinkedIn.