With the coronavirus pandemic in full swing across the globe, all eyes are on the healthcare industry to see how it will combat the virus while also assuaging people’s concerns. Luckily, technology is here to provide a necessary helping hand. Indeed, the healthcare industry is likely to transform how we view healthcare in the near future – and our present reality.
One of the most alarming aspects of the coronavirus is how it has completely overtaken healthcare resources. Reports of COVID-19 test shortages, people swarming hospitals – unwittingly exposing themselves to the virus – and other events have become commonplace in the daily news. As the virus spreads so easily from person to person, how can people get help once they start showing symptoms of the virus without overwhelming healthcare professionals? According to The Dallas Morning News, telemedicine has become the new normal. While telemedicine, which allows doctors to consult with patients remotely, has been available in the past – with patients getting test results, scheduling appointments and more on their smartphones and through apps – it has become a necessity to keep both patients and workers safer. Further, the scope of telehealth coverage for Medicare Advantage enrollees is expected to expand as more doctors, health systems and medical specialties provide telehealth services.
To screen for COVID-19 cases, handle routine inquiries, and the chronically ill, providers are using virtual visits. These visits are proving effective at reassuring people who are anxious about the outbreak, while also saving masks, gowns, and other supplies, which are in high demand to deal with the pandemic. This approach has proven to stem the wave of scared patients sweeping across clinics and emergency rooms, unwittingly exposing themselves to the virus.
Telemedicine is also providing job opportunities. Companies are able to recruit badly needed personnel like retired doctors and nurses, and even physicians who are isolating in their homes or recovering from the virus. Telemedicine is also requiring physicians to shift the way they run their practice. For instance, last month, virtual visits made up a mere 1 percent of care provided by members of the Catalyst Health Network in Plano, Texas. Catalyst’s president, Dr. Christopher Crow, predicts that soon, over 80% of visits could be through telehealth. Further, he reports that the network is providing roughly 12,000 virtual visits a day, a number that could double soon.
Yet, in some major cities, telehealth capacity has been overwhelmed by the demand, which has resulted in long delays. For instance, according to medicine and life sciences website STAT, Jefferson Health, near Philadelphia, had a 20-fold increase in telehealth visits in a week, while the Cleveland Clinic had a 15-fold increase. While technology can handle this large volume of online conferences, providers need more clinicians. And some providers are answering this call. For instance, last week, UT Southwestern Medical Center trained 750 advanced practioners and doctors to help them do video consults. Clearly, the coronavirus has prompted some necessary changes in how we get care, which are likely to stick around long after the pandemic is over.
In order to reduce hospitalizations and related costs, investments in new technologies are intended to maintain good health rather than react to an existing illness. Rather than using technology to advance specialty care and high-tech medicine, according to HealthTech Magazine, we’re seeing a shift toward preventative and primary care. To justify the effort, hospitals are challenged to find the right tools and level of investment to tackle risks and reach enough patients. Even before coronavirus hit, many of the projected trends for 2020 match what we’re presently seeing:
Wearables have the ability to help healthcare professionals collect a wealth of data from a widening, more diverse pool of users. One of these forms is remote patient monitoring, where specialized devices track metrics like glucose levels and blood pressure. Data collection will also come from fitness trackers and devices like the Apple Watch, which can identify signs like atrial fibrillation. In fact, in September of 2019, Apple announced three studies on women’s health, heart health, and noise exposure to be completed along with significant medical institutions. Significantly, more than 400,000 Apple Watch users agreed to partake in the study. Yet, the movement presents challenges in big interoperability and interpretation for providers, who aren’t sure who exactly will filter through this data and showing physicians the important insights. Further, providers worry that by being exposed to – but not acting upon – information about their patient’s condition, they are exposing themselves to liability. While these concerns are legitimate, it’s clear that data has the potential to reveal a lot more about healthcare than we can presently discern.
As we explored previously (link to 3/25 article), artificial intelligence has become a pivotal part of healthcare. AI has the capability to predict malware infections, recognize unusual behaviors on a network, and watch for fraud threats based on previously identified characteristics, among other security measures. Further, AI gives patients control of the care they receive, with tools like chatbots that can be deployed to diagnose minor ailments, and wearable devices like smart shirts that can produce predictive capacities and record health data. AI also has the ability to develop algorithms that help oncologists offer deep insights on biopsy reads. While AI offers much potential in terms of care, many of the aforementioned applications prevent fully comprehensive care because AI is mostly individual companies with one variable and one AI algorithm solving one problem. Now, especially as we see coronavirus rise, alliances may develop between tech companies and healthcare organizations, including tools that do two things at once. In a year’s time, we could potentially see algorithms that interpret multiple data sources at the same time from different variables.
Once reserved for gamers, virtual reality is finding a place in healthcare. One example of this includes senior living residences that are implementing VR to help memory care patients virtually visit favorite vacation areas, enjoy calming scenes of animals and nature, and access street views of their childhood homes. Those experiences have the potential to start conversations and increase socialization. Hospitals are also using VR as a mode of distraction for patients experiencing discomfort or undergoing treatments. Another beneficial way VR is being deployed is to educate patients on various diseases and treatments, which can ease anxiety and improve the patient’s care experience. Finally, VR can give audiences a new perspective on illness, perhaps letting them experience what life is like for an Alzheimer’s patient, which both educates and provides empathy. And patients aren’t the only ones who benefit from VR – surgeons can also use it to visualize potential obstacles before complicated surgeries. VR holds great potential when it comes to improving patient-physician relationships, and the patient’s overall care experience.
By reducing latency and increasing speed and capacity, 5G has the potential to transform the healthcare delivery as we know it. This network will be of significant importance in transmitting large medical images, supporting telehealth goals, and remote patient monitoring tools. It can also be deployed to support complex uses of AI, AR and VR. 5G will also allow faster downloads and communication on mobile tablets and devices used in healthcare settings, and it’s likely to be a good partner for Wi-Fi 6. Yet, 5G is currently only available in a handful of markets. First, there is customer confusion around what counts as 5G coverage and which devices support it. Further, 5G has been criticized for its shorter range, which has resulted in the need for thousands of new antennas. Despite these concerns, a faster, more capable WiFi system is needed in modern times where we increasingly rely on digital environments to get our work done.
In order to keep up with digital transformation – and pandemics like coronavirus – the healthcare industry is undergoing necessary changes. From virtual doctors to the use of VR and AI, healthcare providers are transforming in order to keep pace with patients’ needs and provide the best care.
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