During the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us got a glimpse of the potential future of telehealth. Telehealth, or telemedicine, is the ongoing delivery and execution of any health- or medicine-related services in a remote setting, using telecommunications and digital communication channels. That’s kind of a vague definition, but it includes things like doctor’s visits, check-ins, consultations, prescriptions, and more – all done remotely.
The pandemic forced the hand of technologists, healthcare providers, and other organizations. With people restricted by lockdown protocols and concerned about their own wellbeing, remote healthcare and medicine became the only real options – and it worked quite well.
But what does the future of telehealth look like? And will public acceptance continue?
The State of Telehealth Today
Let’s start by looking at the state of telehealth today.
Current telehealth incorporates a wide range of different technologies, including AI-based monitoring, high-tech wearable devices, consultations via video chat, and more. However, not everyone has made use of virtual appointments or digital communication, and many of the applications of telehealth are restricted to the following:
- Behavioral health. Behavioral health services, including therapy, are often easy to provide over video chat and other forms of digital communication.
- Chronic disease management. Patients with chronic diseases or chronic pain typically need some form of ongoing treatment and support – but going to appointments all the time can be exhausting. That’s why telemedicine is ideal for chronic disease management.
- Consultations. Simple consultations often require little physical interaction. Virtually, doctors can still meet with you, talk about your problems, and even look at your body and measure vitals to see what actions are appropriate next.
- Remote patient monitoring. Thanks to wearable devices and other tech, it’s possible to remotely monitor patients, paying attention to their heart rate, temperature, breathing rate, and other metrics.
The majority of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers agree that telehealth can be effective – and that it’s a preferable treatment alternative for many patients. However, regulatory support remains sluggish, and some people are reluctant to make use of telehealth services because of privacy concerns, skepticism of the benefits of the technology, or just ignorance of how the technology works.
The Benefits of Telehealth
There’s a lot at stake in the world of telehealth. Continuing to make advances and drive the industry forward will have benefits in the form of:
- Convenience. Providing medicine remotely is more convenient for everyone involved. Healthcare providers can provide consultations and some form of treatment anywhere. Patients can get care even if they’re at home. This completely eliminates the need to travel to a facility, eliminates wait times, and allows the patient to be more comfortable throughout the entire process. It’s more efficient and more comfortable, overall.
- Reduced costs. Thanks in part to the increased convenience, telehealth has the potential to reduce costs. Patients don’t have to pay for transportation, nor to they need to use the same facilities as they would with an in-person visit. Providing care remotely can also be faster and take up fewer resources, lowering bills for both insurance companies and end consumers.
- Better turnaround. When meeting with patients virtually and monitoring data streams remotely, doctors and healthcare professionals can typically see more people in a given period of time. This is an especially important benefit, considering our current doctor shortage.
- Higher responsiveness. With live data feeds and automatic alerts, doctors can often be faster and more responsive to the patients who need care the most. This can avert medical disasters and ultimately provide better care to the people who need it most.
- Improved outcomes. Overall, patients will enjoy improved outcomes. More available doctors, broader reach, lower costs, and more immediate treatment will save lives and make people more comfortable.
How Telehealth Will Evolve
So how will telehealth evolve in the future?
- Custom solutions. For starters, we’re going to see more demand for custom solutions – both for individuals and for healthcare providers. Every hospital and practice in the country is going to be hungry for their own proprietary apps, software, devices, and other technologies to provide their patients with the best possible care. Accordingly, there’s going to be a golden age of healthcare technology development – and thousands of new technologies that will push the limits of our medical knowledge.
- Inclusion in health policies. We’ll also see the inclusion of telehealth- and telemedicine-specific policies and outlines in health policies. Government departments, insurance companies, and other organizations will work to make specific rules and regulations for telehealth, legitimizing it in the eyes of the public and setting the stage for future developments.
- Wearable devices. Wearable devices are already a big part of telemedicine, but they’ll be an even bigger part of the industry in the future. Wristbands can currently detect and transmit your heart rate remotely, along with other metrics like body temperature. In the future, wearables will become more diverse, more discreet, and more sophisticated, capable of measuring a much wider range of data points while being hardly noticeable to the wearer.
- Data-based profiles. Big data and telemedicine go hand in hand. If you’re wearing devices 24/7 that collect information about your body and health habits, doctors will have access to enormous volumes of data about you as a person. With that, they’ll be able to make much more individualized plans for treatment – and give you exactly what you need to maximize your chances of improvement or recovery.
- AI bots. Though telehealth will have the potential to free up doctors’ time with faster appointments and greater convenience, we’re still likely to suffer from the ongoing labor shortage in the field. To make up for this, we’ll likely see the emergence of AI chatbots who can handle the majority of initial consultations – providing care to more people and saving time and money in the process.
- Virtual reality. Video chats are effective for most forms of communication, but sometimes, navigating a 3D environment together is even better. In the distant future, appointments may include interaction in a virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) space. It could be a way to preserve the “human connection” element of health or simply provide better care.
- Real-time care. Wearables and diagnostic tools will be capable of sending a constant stream of information to healthcare providers, resulting in a real-time feed of data from which providers can make important decisions. If someone is experiencing a life-threatening situation, a healthcare provider can respond immediately.
- The dissolution of “telehealth.” Eventually, “telehealth” will be a foreign concept because technology is so ubiquitous that it becomes the norm. Telehealth tech will just be a normal, accepted part of healthcare.
Collectively, these effects will lead to:
- Higher public acceptance. Better tech will lead to higher public acceptance. More people will be on board with remote health services – and demand will rise.
- Greater accessibility. Cheaper, more ubiquitous tech also has the potential to increase accessibility. It will be in the hands of more healthcare providers, more people will have new ways to get healthcare, and there will be more provisions in insurance policies to provide that care.
- Lower costs. Tech has been reducing healthcare costs for decades, and that trend is only going to accelerate.
- Better outcomes. Almost every aspect of our current system has the potential to be better, and yield better results, with better, more embedded tech.
When people see these benefits, it’s going to inspire even more ingenuity, investment, and acceptance – resulting in a positive feedback loop that keeps the industry growing.
It’s all but a certainty that telehealth and telemedicine will continue to progress over the next several years and decades – but it’s not certain how or when it will become the new normal. It’s an industry that’s young, with a lot of potential, so it’s an important one to watch whether you’re a doctor, and investor, or just someone interested in better health outcomes.