TeleHealth is Here, and It’s Growing

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Doctors use remote connections to track, advise, and even treat their patients.

A new report from Intel shows that healthcare is likely to become increasingly reliant on telehealth (TH) in the next ten years. TH includes long distance consultations, monitoring, and information sharing – everything from a doctor calling a colleague to discuss a case to state of the art surgical robots that can be remotely operated. Presented at the American Telemedicine Association’s annual conference in San Antonio this month, Intel’s report surveyed 75 top decision makers in the health industry about the future of telehealth. 89% believe that it will be a big factor in the next decade. Two-thirds already use telehealth in their facilities, and of the remaining third, half will implement TH programs in the next year. Information technologies and medicine are already in bed with one another, and we’ve seen plenty of evidence that this relationship is only going to grow stronger.

With only 75 data points (all based in the US), the Intel report can’t really be considered a definitive assessment of the field of telehealth. But that’s okay, there’s a lot of evidence to support their survey conclusions. First there’s the spending trends. According to Data Monitor the US and Europe spent $3 billion on telehealth in 2009, and are projected to spend $7.7 billion in 2012. That’s a lot of cash. There’s also the corporate angle: GE is spending millions on their healthymagination initiative which is full of telehealth projects including portable ultrasound monitors, and online health education.

In fact, we’ve been seeing tons of telehealth technologies moving towards the market. AirStrip has designed a suite of iPhone Apps that will let doctors remotely access important patient data and images -everything from brain scans to life signs for patients in labor. Tablet computers are also freeing up doctors to consult and review while they’re on the run, with some hospitals purchasing large numbers of iPads for their staff. Health monitoring tech is on the rise with Toumaz’s Digital Plaster, WIN Human Recorder, and others ready to let you track your body and share that data with health professionals. There’s also many online stores of medical information, which at the higher end of quality should count as telehealth because they educate patients and help with preventative care.

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It’s pretty clear that med-tech companies and healthcare providers are both ready to make medicine remote and mobile, but will you want the same thing? You probably should. With telehealth you have access to not just your doctor, but an entire network of medical professionals and medical research. At first, patients are unlikely to have to worry about how that network is harnessed. Doctors will use advanced software (based on the collective knowledge of the medical community) to advise their decisions, your medical data (properly encrypted and secure -we hope!) will be passed on to experts in the field, and operating rooms will contain remotely controlled surgical robots. All these telehealth applications will provide you with better care and help speed your recovery, but they will essentially be out of your hands.

Eventually though, telehealth will also be a path for patient empowerment. At its heart, TH is about information, where it goes, who sees it, and how it can be leveraged to provide better care. With access to this data stream, patients will be able to do their own research, and help advise their own treatments. You’ll be able to perform your own health monitoring, consult online communities of patients who share your health conditions, and get your own personal DNA testing. Armed with this information you will be able to work with your doctor to guide your own proactive/preventative healthcare.

Telehealth has global implications as well. Mobile phones equipped with microscopes could give remote communities access to high quality laboratory testing. Disaster relief could be aided by smart phone apps. Enormous databases for diseases will be accessible to doctors all over the world.

The next decade is going to be an exciting time in healthcare, not just because of the many miraculous treatments and cures we’ve seen in development, but because we’re going to approach medicine from a much more tech savvy vantage point. Information technology is accelerating, powered by advances in processing power and the growing interconnectivity of people and computers. When applied to medicine, IT has the potential to revolutionize healthcare, moving us away from a single patient-doctor relationship to a web of peer-patient-doctor-expert-database interactions. We’ll still keep the trusted doctor-patient bond, but each side of that relationship will act as a gatekeeper to much deeper stores of data. That data is going to help you stay healthier. As Intel reports, medical providers see the telehealth revolution as bringing about lower costs and much improved patients outcomes. No doubt about it, medical knowledge is power…yours is coming.

[image credit: YourFamilyHealthTeam]
[source: Intel Press Release]