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The future of telehealth

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The future of telehealth

The pandemic has seen a dramatic rise in the use of telemedicine but what does the future of telehealth look like and how will it impact HR professionals?

Telemedicine may have hit the headlines in recent years, but it took a global pandemic to shine the light on its true efficacy and potential.

With most face-to-face consultations revoked to help stem the spread of the virus, physicians and patients have had to turn to alternative ways of providing and accessing healthcare – and telemedicine has filled that gap.

The pandemic has forced healthcare providers’ hands and has accelerated the journey to telehealth becoming the ‘new normal’.

According to a Willis Towers Watson survey, two-in-five (39 per cent) employers have provided, or expanded, access to telemedicine during the pandemic – and a further 19 per cent are planning or considering the move(1).

In fact, Deloitte predicts that the percentage of virtual doctor visits across the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries will rise to five per cent during 2021 – equivalent to around 400 million consultations. This compares to just one per cent in 2019(2).

For employers, telemedicine brings a multitude of benefits. Used appropriately, it can help reduce healthcare costs, increase productivity and boost employee engagement.

Research has found that online GPs could help UK businesses save up to £1.5 billion by reducing the time employees spend travelling to appointments(3).

Here we look at the top three upcoming trends in the future of telemedicine.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

There was once a time when the term ‘AI’ conjured up a dystopian image of a future overrun with thinking robots. Fast forward to today, though, and AI has blended seamlessly into our daily lives, becoming an expected enabler, from asking Alexa for the time, flicking through personalised Netflix recommendations or having our search terms filled in by Google’s predictive bot.

AI is also becoming increasingly influential in the healthcare sphere, especially in telehealth, where it can help healthcare providers to enhance remote patient services and make processes more efficient and streamlined, as well as increasing patient empowerment.

AI-based chatbots, or virtual assistants, for example, can now take a patient through an initial health questionnaire. They can then deliver relevant medical advice – go to bed or to go to hospital – or bring a human doctor into the mix, should the AI bot algorithms deem it necessary. This intelligent symptom checker not only saves the employee time, but also reduces the cost for employers paying out for unnecessary trips to the doctors.

In virtual consultations, machine-learning algorithms that have been integrated with telemedicine solutions can analyse a patient’s data to provide a more accurate diagnosis, as well as treatment. AI can also dynamically change questions throughout a consultation based on the patient’s response, further helping to deliver a precise diagnosis.

As AI software processes data faster than a human ever could, it can quickly identify health problems before they get worse. For example, one tech company has created an app and a mobile device with attachments, such as a stethoscope, otoscope and tongue depressor. Doctors will then guide patients through examinations in the app, with the AI-powered features helping to automatically detect abnormalities in places like the lungs, alerting the doctor and patient.

AI can also be used to analyse patient-uploaded photos, whether that’s checking for rare genetic diseases in photos of faces, looking at chronic wounds, checking skin lesions for cancer or examining the retina to check for possible indications of diabetic retinopathy.

Virtual reality (VR)

For employees who need physical and occupational therapy, the pandemic has meant less access to vital therapy appointments, leaving some patients without professional care and trying to manage their recovery themselves.

However, they could soon find themselves benefiting from remote rehabilitation sessions through a virtual reality headset, helping clinicians to support managed home recovery from afar.

A headset is sent to the patient at home, where clinical workers will be able to remotely control what therapy is shown via the headset. The data from body movements can then be regularly monitored and analysed by the clinician and the therapy amended as and when.

VR can also support those employees experiencing or recovering from addiction – something we may see more of post-pandemic following the months of social isolation. For example, one tech firm has developed a VR smoking cessation programme for employees, helping businesses to improve productivity and cut costs.

In virtual sessions, VR can also be used to help doctors explain health issues to patients through 3D interactive models, giving a more thorough explanation than just a verbal account. This can help patients to feel more knowledgeable and could potentially speed up the process of choosing which treatment to take.

Augmented reality (AR)

The term ‘augmented reality’ was coined way back in 1990, but it was only recently that AR made it mark with smartphone and smartwear technology, such as Google Glasses.

Instead of being immersed in a whole new world like with VR, AR superimposes computer-generated images onto a person’s real-life view.

In a telehealth setting, AR is increasingly being used via smart glasses that can bring up electronic medical records on demand. This means when in a virtual consultation, doctors are able to chat to patients while having the patient’s e-notes directly in their line of sight, providing a more efficient experience.

In the wider medical world, AR is bringing more benefits to medical professionals. An AR-focused start-up has developed technology that allows surgeons to see a patient’s anatomy through skin and tissue. Another company, is making nurses’ lives easier by using a handheld scanner to show where a person’s veins are located in their body. AR is also helping to train medical students, with the first operation 360-degree live-streamed to more than 55,000 trainees.

What’s next in healthcare?

Technological innovations and faster connections from 5G are having a huge impact on the entire healthcare system, not just telemedicine.

Hospitals are looking to discharge patients as quickly as possible and use wearable biosensors and smart watches and smartphones to monitor health issues, such as heart conditions, and vital signs, like blood oxygen and skin temperature, from afar.

Surgeries are being livestreamed through AR to specialists ‘virtually scrubbing in’. The remote surgeons have access to ultrasound images and x-rays, as well as being able to ‘point’ with AR hands. This new system allows specialists to be on-hand and to help before, during and after the operation without having to waste time travelling – especially those experts overseas who are needed for complex surgeries.

Medical robots are also being used to help surgeons with operations remotely, demonstrated recently by a hospital in Italy, where surgeons operated on vocal cords from almost ten miles away. These sci-fi-esque helpers can also keep track of their own battery life, heading back to a charging station when necessary.

5G-based ‘smart city’ technology can also automatically inform hospitals of a patient’s impending arrival in an ambulance. Not only does this allow them to get a bed prepared, if there is a integration with electronic medical records, it also enables them to prepare the right medical set-up based on the patient’s existing conditions and allergies. Should the hospital be busy and not have any beds, the technology can even direct the ambulance driver to another hospital with availability.

(1) https://www.willistowerswatson.com/en-GB/Insights/2020/05/covid-19-benefits-survey-report-uk

(2) https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/insights/industry/technology/technology-media-and-telecom-predictions/2021/virtual-doctor-video-visits.html

(3) https://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/emea/online-gps-could-save-employers-15-billion-lost-working-time-according-report