Telemedicine: A Harbinger Of Healthcare Transformation?
It’s hard to believe that the website WebMD was launched nearly a quarter century ago. An early milestone on the road to digital healthcare, the site allowed consumers to bypass their medical providers and research their symptoms directly.
In the past decade, we’ve seen technology dramatically transform medicine. Surgical and clinical robotics have become commonplace. Radiologists employ artificial intelligence to scan for tumors. Researchers analyze massive data streams to predict disease trajectories, inform on public health issues and customize patient care.
Technology is transforming the patient experience too. Many of us use wearables like smartwatches and heart rate sensors or track biometrics with a smartphone app. Since the emergence of Covid-19, the oximeter, a device used to monitor blood oxygen levels, has become a household item for many.
As the chief revenue officer of a company that provides patient communication solutions for healthcare providers, I’ve noticed that Covid-19 is changing patient communications as well. In prior years, the chief technology for patient communications was an online portal. With the onset of Covid-19, we’re seeing the rapid adoption of telemedicine. The United States government has relaxed some HIPAA restrictions to allow doctors to treat patients via videoconference, while insurers have expanded their coverage to include virtual care. Although these changes may expire after the pandemic subsides, it’s more likely we’ll see a growing reliance on these electronic patient communications — for example, for well-patient and mental health consultations and for patients who live in underserved rural areas. One confirmation of this is that stocks of virtual healthcare companies such as MDLive and Omada Healthcare are soaring since the pandemic began. Other fast-growing patient communication technologies include the use of mail-in test kits for contactless specimen collections and remote patient monitoring.
Of course, Covid-19 is not the only driver of change here. Most baby boomers are reaching their 60s and 70s, and an aging U.S. population requires more medical care. And companies under pressure in a poor economy will look to technology for solutions to contain escalating healthcare costs. For all these reasons, it’s time to tackle the many technological roadblocks to patient care.
Most of us have experienced these. I know I have. Every time I visit a new practice, I’m required to complete the same medical history forms, even though that information has been captured many times before. The fact that I’m now filling it out on my cellphone or on a tablet instead of paper doesn’t improve the experience. The lack of data normalization between different electronic health record systems makes it impossible to share information, so we’re forced to enter it again, and again and again, and with every iteration, we likely leave out some critical details.
There are other issues, too. Outdated software poses security issues, and patients worry that their health data may be publicly exposed or used against them. And of course, there’s a lack of transparency in pricing and insurance explanations of benefits. All of these issues ultimately contribute to a decline in patient trust. And this has implications for overall patient health: A lack of trust in doctors correlates with poorer patient health outcomes. In fact, while the U.S. spends more on healthcare per capita, our healthcare system doesn’t even rank in the top 10 for quality of outcomes among our peers.
Unfortunately, there is no one solution to these problems. But many of them can be tied to the cost of administration. While it’s up to policymakers to effect regulatory change, it’s up to technology companies to put forth innovative ideas and patients to lobby for these changes. For instance, how can we have a connected network and central patient record that not only cuts down on the administrative costs, but also creates a better patient experience? While it’s important to get in-person care, how often in a routine checkup does a physician perform something that couldn’t be done through virtual care or telemedicine?
Responses to Covid-19 demonstrate there are still opportunities to pivot to innovations. Improving patient communications with new technologies is one step to get there. Making permanent the coverage for, and expanding the use of, telemedicine is another. Even without Covid-19, we have a health crisis, with tens of millions of Americans uninsured or underinsured. We need our government, insurers and providers to collaborate on new solutions to deliver healthcare as urgently as they have approached Covid-19. It’s unlikely we’ll go back to healthcare as usual once this one ends. What we can learn from it is the power of human ingenuity to help us move forward with new solutions.
Originally published on the Forbes Business Development Council
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