Imagine a world where you never needed to visit a doctor. Instead, your doctor examines you in the comfort of your home through a video call. You receive a home-delivery of medicines and a test-kit that you can complete within a few minutes. You can then beam the results directly to your doctor. Your doctor’s team follows up with further treatment and follow-ups to ensure that you are getting better from the comfort of your home. This scenario is not science fiction. In fact, it shows the promise that telehealth holds today as it is gains increasing popularity worldwide.
Telehealth or telemedicine refers to the provision of medical services remotely using electronic media such as telephones or computers. Telehealth takes many forms – home visits, telephone calls, video chats or text message-based coaching. Each new day throws up another example of how telehealth is used to provide a diverse range of services such as virtual doctor visits for daily ailments, telephone-coaching to improve cardiovascular or stroke health, management of chronic diseases such as diabetes or remote measurement of patient vitals.
So how can telehealth provide value beyond what is already available today? To answer this question, one must examine the advantages that telehealth provides. The first advantage is less need to travel. Long distances in rural areas, busy commutes in urban areas and lack of access to quick transportation make it difficult to for patients enrolled to reach a hospital and receive care. Telehealth will solve these issues with virtual visits delivered via personal devices or community-based kiosks. Why must one travel an entire day for a doctor’s consultation when they can achieve the same through a video chat available at the click of a button?
The second advantage is convenience. Individuals have multiple responsibilities in life and work. Visiting a hospital, albeit for health is a drain on productivity, be it a corporate executive in New York or a farmer in the Midwest. Telehealth approaches will allow individuals to get the care they need at a time convenient for them without having to make the trek to the hospital at odd hours of the day.
The third advantage is scale. With vast distances, large populations and lack of sufficient staff, it will be a monumental task to build enough hospitals and train enough clinicians to take care of the health needs of all patients. Telehealth would allow the delivery of quality care without huge infrastructural overhead because most care would be provided at home and through telecommunication. This low infrastructural requirement has the added advantage of bringing down costs to deliver care as it allows doctors and nurses to be able to handle more patients without needing them to come to a designated location.
The fourth advantage is improved communication. Telehealth applications allow doctors and patients to be in constant communication with each other regardless of distance or time of day. This allows doctors and their teams to gain insight into their patients’ behaviors outside the four walls of the clinic, information that could be critical in the timely treatment of patients. Doctors will be able to intervene for patients who are not compliant to prescriptions. Patients gain the advantage of being able to seek medical advice when and where they need it. Increased communication also allows hospitals to offer a more holistic range of services as per patient needs.
Of course, there exist challenges that prevent a faster adoption of telehealth. Improved communication and power infrastructures are needed to support robust delivery of telehealth-based models. Successful telehealth approaches must take into account technological comfort of both patients and doctors. Likewise, treatment approaches must be created keeping local cultural contexts in mind. More rigorous studies must be conducted to further prove the efficacy in telehealth approaches and determine best practices and standards. Not every disease or condition can be treated with a telehealth-based approach.
Despite these challenges, telehealth continues to enjoy increasing adoption. An increasingly wide array of at-home monitors and sensors mean we can diagnose more diseases. The rapid adoption of smartphones across all age groups with ready internet connections means that every person is carrying a potential healthcare hub in their pocket that can connect them to their doctors and an easy to use device to collect medical data. The way telehealth can potentially expand is by initially offering such services as a complementary offering in concierge-based or rural settings. As telehealth technologies gain traction and an evidence-base is built, such approaches will diffuse into the general populace and receive institutional support through insurance billing.
As the United States aims to solve the triple aim of cost, quality and scale, telehealth is one promising strategy to democratize access to healthcare. Given the pace of technological innovation and the rapid adoption of technologies like smartphones, the time has already come when we can order our health services just like we would order a pizza or watch a movie on Netflix.