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Making the case for telemedicine (and isn't it about time?)

Telemedicine innovators, thought leaders and many of the largest tech companies – including Council Partners Qualcomm, Microsoft and Intel – gathered in San Jose, CA last week for the Telehealth Failures & Secrets to Success conference. It was billed as an opportunity to examine the failures of telehealth and discover how to become successful in the space. That such a conference exists is one of the many mixed messages plaguing telemedicine, which advocates believe is a smart way to provide quality, affordable healthcare to more people, including under-served and remote populations, the elderly and the poor. We agree, and found some reasons to be hopeful, highlighted below. – Liz Enbysk


A new research report on the global telehealth market expects it to reach $9.35 billion by 2021 – that's up from $2.78 billion in 2016.

Markets & Markets researchers cite a number of reasons for the projected CAGR of 27.5% over the next five years. Among them:

  • Growth in geriatric populations
  • Rising prevalence of chronic diseases
  • Dearth of healthcare professionals worldwide
  • Improvements in telecommunication infrastructure
  • Technological advancements
  • Need for affordable treatment options due to rising healthcare costs

Valid as those reasons may be, patients are still going to have to understand and embrace the benefits of telemedicine. Results of a research study led by Dr. Leonard Egede at the Medical University of South Carolina and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston encouraged telemedicine advocates on that front.

The research involved 241 depressed elderly veterans who were randomly assigned eight weeks of psychotherapy involving either in-office visits or in-home videoconferencing technology. A Reuters article reports the study found that after a year, "there was little or no meaningful difference in satisfaction or symptom relief between the two groups."

A highly relevant option
Researchers believe the findings demonstrate that telemedicine is a highly relevant option for people living in remote or rural areas. "In addition," Egede told Reuters, "this study was focused specifically on the elderly population, who have limitations in terms of mobility and transportation options that make them good candidates for depression therapy using telemedicine."

Meanwhile, a survey of 1,300 healthcare consumers and a roundtable of healthcare insurance executives conducted by West Monroe Partners – No More Waiting Room: The Future of the Healthcare Customer Experience – explored technology and the evolution of healthcare delivery.

The survey found that adoption of digital health technologies may vary by age group and income levels. For instance:

  • Age: Millennials (18-35 years old) are much more likely to use digital channels to communicate with their provider than their Baby Boomer (52-70 years old) counterparts – particularly when it comes to mobile apps. The authors note: "As insurers increasingly adopt telehealth and homecare solutions, they need to strike a balance between accommodating millennials and applying these tools to their more senior customers."
  • Income: Among those whose annual salary is more than $75,000, 92% prefer mobile "visits" to in-office appointments. By contrast, only 60% of consumers with salaries below $50,000 prefer to engage with their provider via mobile

But providers and insurers are not necessarily ready to serve up the healthcare connectedness that West Monroe, a Council Associate Partner, says consumers crave. "The healthcare industry is significantly behind the curve on technology innovation and collaboration efforts that improve the customer experience," Senior Director of Healthcare Will Hinde notes.

In the U.S. telemedicine is getting a push from Congress. Last month the Senate unanimously passed a health tele-training bill designed to help providers use technology to connect with patients in hard-to-reach areas.

Witnessing the benefits
Increasing exposure to the very real benefits of telemedicine-in-action may also spur wider acceptance. Here are a few intriguing examples:

  • A two-year pilot funded by the NFL's Houston Texans and GE Healthcare will make telemedicine available to 19 rural school districts in Texaas to evaluate and treat sports-related concussions. Athletic trainers will connect via a Microsoft Surface and Skype with a Houston Methodist Hospital Concussion Center physician.
  • Hearing tests in elementary schools in three Canadian cities will be conducted using an iPad and a mobile health platform launched by the University of Ottawa Medical School. The iHEAR platform, according to mHealthIntelligence, is one of a growing number of telehealth screening options designed to test schoolkids for developmental issues that can become major health problems if left undetected.
  • With approximately 10% of newborns needing help breathing after birth and 1 in 1,000 requiring more intensive resuscitation measures, such high-risk deliveries may challenge community hospitals. In a 20-month study, the Mayo Clinic worked with six health system sites to provide newborn telemedicine consultations. As a result of the enhanced access to neonatologists, who could remotely assess the newborn and guide the local care team through the resuscitation, one-third of the babies were able to stay with their families in the local hospital,

Read more about telemedicine in the Health and Human Services chapter of the Smart Cities Readiness Guide.

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This is an article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our newsletter.

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