Demand for telehealth services such as video conferencing and remote patient monitoring in everywhere from Africa to rural America is escalating, as broadband networks—both wired and mobile—are better able to support those bandwidth-intensive services.
In fact, the sector is estimated to grow tenfold from 2013 to 2018, to account for $4.5 billion in deployments, according to IHS. It’s an encouraging growth prediction, considering that telehealth can save millions of lives each year, especially in rural, impoverished and remote locations where access to brick-and-mortar facilities is often not an option. As it is, the UN estimates that eight million children die per year before reaching their fifth birthday, and about 350,000 women die during pregnancy or childbirth, because of a lack of adequate care.
But strides are being made. The Department of Veterans Affairs has just released stats on the use of telehealth services this month, revealing that it served more than 690,000 veterans during fiscal year 2014, compared with 608,000 in 2013. That represents 12 percent of all veterans enrolled in the VA health care system. Of those who used telehealth, about 55 percent lived in rural areas far away from VA facilities.
Overall, the number of telehealth visits increased from 1.8 million in 2013 to two million this year.
"A brick-and-mortar facility is not the only option for health care," said VA Secretary Robert McDonald. “We are exploring how we can more efficiently and effectively deliver healthcare services to better serve our veterans and improve their lives."
That’s all good news, but making good on the bullish growth predictions will require a better broadband infrastructure, some note.
“Rural healthcare providers (HCP) continue to suffer from limited access to broadband speeds necessary to fulfill their rapidly expanding public and private Internet network needs vital for telehealth communications with patients and HCPs,” said Tim Koxlien, founder and CEO of Rural Health Telecom. “Upgrading rural health care provider broadband networks will dramatically enhance their ability to implement new telemedicine technologies and increase access to electronic medical records. This will ultimately enable them to better serve patients through streamlined operational efficiencies, expanded patient service access, reduced costs and improved quality of care.”
Koxlien also noted that high equipment installation costs and a workforce deficit of trained IT personnel as two challenges facing telecom accessibility. “Many local service providers are reluctant or unwilling to expand into these underserved markets because of the costs associated with designing and implementing rural networks, [and a] lack of funding,” Koxlien said.
Some companies are using the fact that we have a hyper-connected world to pioneer simpler, more inexpensive tools and practices for telehealth.
“The private sector has become eager to increase its engagement, not just because there are business opportunities but because they see the value in ethical business and in helping to improve people’s lives,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
Google for instance is launching a pilot telehealth program for basic care. When consumers search for health information—such as a particular symptom—a “talk with a doctor now” option will pop up, which will open up a video or text chat with medical professionals at either Scripps Health or San Francisco’s One Medical Group. The service will be free to users.
"When you're searching for basic health information, from conditions like insomnia or food poisoning, our goal is to provide you with the most helpful information available. We're trying this new feature to see if it's useful to people," a Google spokesperson told Modern Healthcare.
A bit further from home, Philips is targeting sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia with telehealth equipment, where high maternal and infant mortality can be addressed through early diagnosis, proper nutrition, remote monitoring innovations and access to energy. The consumer electronics giant has committed to improving the lives of 100 million women and children by 2025, as part of the UN’s Every Woman Every Child initiative. It has goals for a two-thirds reduction in under-five mortality, and a 75 percent reduction in maternal mortality by 2015.
Philips has undertaken several country-wide rehabilitation programs across Africa. By targeting sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia specifically, Philips will mobilize resources to support access to healthcare through large scale healthcare transformation projects, in combination with clinical education and skills training for healthcare professionals.
The Philips Africa Innovation Hub will be devoted to developing and deploying innovations that improve the quality of care for mothers and their children in low-resource settings. It has already developed automated respiration monitors that support the diagnosis of pneumonia in children under five, clean cooking stoves and solar lighting, as well as telehealth and mobile-health solutions which can provide early diagnosis and healthy living and nutritional advice.
Philips also recently piloted the telehealth Mobile Obstetrical Monitoring (MoM) project in Indonesia to remotely monitor pregnant women for early high-risk identification.
Meanwhile, the Global Partnership for Telehealth (GPT) has joined the American International Health Alliance (AIHA) and Zambian Department Force to develop and implement a telemedicine program for the Zambian military and Zambian citizens located in neighboring villages. That includes establishing telemedicine presentation sites at five Zambian military bases, which will connect to Maina Soko Military Hospital located in the capitol of Lusaka. The telemedicine program will afford the smaller, more rural hospitals access to specialty physician care, and the bases will utilize telemedicine to present Zambian citizens in bordering villages to medical professionals throughout the country.
"We envision the GPT-Zambia training center to become the telehealth showcase for the African continent," said Jeffrey Kesler, COO of GPT. "The GPT-Zambia program will play a critical role in changing the lives of Zambians."
GPT is addressing the training gap as well. In July, a GPT team spent 10 days setting up the Zambian Telemedicine Training Center—the first and only telemedicine training center on the African continent. The center will provide a location to train students, medical residents and military physicians on the importance of telemedicine and how to provide telehealth services.
It’s likely that these are indicative of many more initiatives to follow. IHS said that results from telehealth programs reveal sharp decreases in readmission rates and mortality rates, alongside increases in adherence through patient engagement. These benefits make a strong business case for telehealth and will result in greater reimbursement from regulatory bodies.
“Amid rising expenses, an aging population and the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases, the healthcare industry must change the way it operates,” said Roeen Roashan, medical devices and digital health analyst at IHS Technology. “Telehealth represents an attractive solution to these challenges, increasing the quality of care while reducing overall healthcare expenditures.”
Edited by Maurice Nagle