Technology continues to revolutionize the way that goods and services are delivered. Healthcare is no exception. As an increasingly attractive alternative to conventional doctor visits, telehealth can increase access, reduce cost, and make the entire process more efficient for healthcare providers and patients. Telehealth refers to the process of using telecommunications technology, most notably the internet, to reduce hurdles that might prevent some populations from receiving the care they need. In particular, rural populations that are physically distant from hospitals or clinics will benefit from the ongoing telehealth revolution. The elderly population, which commonly faces mobility issues, is another important demographic that benefits from telehealth trends.
Currently, many of the leaders in telehealth are extremely large providers such as the Veterans Administration, which has seen significant improvements in health outcomes for patients that it evaluates, diagnoses, and treats remotely. As the technology improves further, smaller healthcare organizations will be able to reap the same benefits.
Both chronic and acute health conditions have been shown to be effectively managed and treated using telehealth technology. Continual innovation in this sector broadens the applications of technology to healthcare delivery.
Perhaps the simplest, but far from the only, example of telehealth which may come to mind is video-conferencing remotely between a provider and a patient. Travel time and distance is often cited by patients as their primary barrier to receiving the healthcare they need. In addition, video conferencing helps providers by reducing scheduling conflicts and reducing missed appointments.
Another telehealth revolution with significant improvements in health outcomes has been the development of applications, accessible by smartphone or computer, that can help monitor acute conditions. This is most common with chronic heart conditions and diabetes. The most frequently downloaded applications, according to groups who track these, monitor heart rates and blood sugar levels. Staying up to date on these conditions with accurate, real-time information can stabilize these conditions and prevent costly trips to already overburdened emergency rooms.
Another major accomplishment of telehealth has been the widespread accessibility to online health support groups, particularly for behavioral and mental health conditions. Studies have shown that patients with these conditions benefit greatly from interacting with others experiencing the same challenges through online support groups. Developing strategies for coping with mental health conditions, exchanging personal experiences, and sharing tips with one another can help alleviate the sometimes isolating and demoralizing impacts of mental health conditions like depression. Many research organizations have demonstrated through cohort studies the effectiveness of online support groups in managing mental health challenges.
The management of diet and exercise are crucial components of lifestyle modifications that contribute to long-term health improvements. In recent years, many free or inexpensive “diet apps” have helped patients improve their nutritional intake and calorie management by planning and recording their eating habits. Exercise applications, likewise, help plan and record data associated with physical exertion and monitor the calories burned through exercise.
An important aspect of telehealth is the unlocked access to large amounts of information. Scientific research was once restricted to the domain of universities and academic fields but is now accessible on an unprecedented scale. Legitimate research from respected organizations in the field is available for free online, including from the National Institutes of Health and other major repositories of healthcare research. Not only in this research now accessible online, but multiple interpretations in common language and practical ways to apply the information also helps patients understand their conditions. The ability for patients to research their own conditions using peer-reviewed studies not only increases their knowledge and ability for self-care but also leads to a greater sense of empowerment over their own lives. It is no longer necessary for providers to act as “gatekeepers” of information that might otherwise be difficult to access or digest.
A major logistical challenge in healthcare historically has been the recording and maintenance of healthcare records of patients. Digitally saving easily retrievable information in clouds and online databases helps both patients and providers understand the broader context of a patient’s health condition. Storing and organizing crucial health data across multiple formats has been a major contributor to improved health outcomes for providers who utilize this technology in their practice. The digital storage of health records also significantly reduces the administrative burden faced by providers and typically passed on to the patient through higher cost.
Telehealth as a useful technology for diagnosing, treating and managing health conditions is still in its infancy. 5G technology, the next phase of internet technology, has enormous potential applications in the medical field. Chinese surgeons at PLA General Hospital recently successfully performed brain surgery on a patient with Parkinson’s Disease, a debilitating neurological condition, using a 5G connection. As 5G technology becomes increasingly available in remote areas, crucial lifesaving surgery will no longer be confined to wealthy, urban areas.
The costs associated with healthcare will be reduced substantially with the adoption of 5G technology. A group studying the NHS, Britain’s national health service, found that the organization could save nearly 3 billion British Pounds, about 3.6 billion US dollars, annually with the application of 5G technology to their services.