Of all the promising healthcare delivery methods primed to play an expanded role in healthcare, telehealth is the brightest of all. Changes within the healthcare industry, friendlier legislation, and a shifting economic landscape have already begun to pave the way for telemedicine. Analysts project this industry will be worth $36 billion by 2020, and expect its growth to continue beyond that.
For all the good things telehealth has going for it, relatively simple technologies are making it possible. Telecommunications and other technology fields are making great strides on a daily basis, and every advancement works in telehealth’s best interest: As a field built around flexibility, speed, and long-distance communication, anything that helps people communicate better can be put to good use.
1. Another Smartphone Revolution
The gadget currently sitting on your desk or in your pocket is one of the advances in technology that can be directly credited for telehealth’s current success.
It’s estimated that nearly 30 percent of the world’s population currently carries a smartphone, and that statistic is projected to grow 7 percent by 2020. And, as of 2015, roughly 68 percent of American adults carry one of these devices.
That’s a lot of people. Many are rural and homebound patients, who are among those most affected by the physician shortage and could benefit from access to telemedicine services. Cellular data service often reaches where landline data and wireless internet don’t, which further increases the medium’s portability and accessibility. Beyond smartphones’ basic voice and video chat capabilities, which alone can be used to diagnose and treat a surprising number of conditions, the devices can also help patients manage other, specific medical activities through certified apps and add-ons.
2. Sensors, Sensors Everywhere
Smartphones and internet-capable mobile devices may be the driving factor behind telehealth’s success, but it’s the gadgets and the growing popularity of the internet of things that is taking this market to new places.
You’ve likely already heard of, for example, ingestible “smart pills” and wearable heart and temperature monitoring devices. The snag? Internet of things technology isn’t quite where it needs to be to meet healthcare’s stringent security and privacy needs. Once these concerns are addressed, the sky’s the limit. In the very near future, you could see people leaving pharmacies with bags of tiny, smartphone-connectable gadgets alongside their medications.
3. Wireless Data
The ability to send and receive data — the reason smartphones are smart — would be obsolete if it wasn’t for the advances made in wireless networks and data connectivity. Healthcare facilities with access to broadband will tend to use landline connections, and patients with access to Wi-Fi will connect using that. But, for the 7 percent of rural facilities (and one percent of total facilities nationwide) that lack broadband access, and for patients without a reliable connection of their own, cellular data fills the gap left by a network infrastructure that has not expanded into their area.
In the near future, rural patients may see the benefits of initiatives such as Project Loon, a unique internet delivery system that uses balloons to provide data connectivity. Although Loon and similar technologies are still being tested, they will offer an opportunity for telehealth providers to reach new patients and underserved areas.
4. Harvesting the Sun
Although it isn’t a telecommunication technology, solar energy is a powerful, adaptable form of renewable energy. It’s the perfect match for telehealth: Both solar energy and telehealth have been deployed to areas affected by natural disasters when traditional power grids and healthcare facilities are inoperable.
Telehealth can be a great asset for secondary health efforts in disaster situations for people who don’t need emergency care but do need to speak to a medical professional as soon as possible. The same flexibility that makes telemedicine so easy to set up as a permanent service will also allow for quick setup and teardown in disaster-stricken areas. Similar technology could be deployed in ultra-rural regions, where a solar-powered telemedicine “clinic” could help underserved, remote patients.
Solar and telehealth will almost certainly work closely together in the future. And this future is getting closer every day. Major names are making major deals — and, of course, major advancements — in the field that could bring solar energy (and telehealth) to your neighborhood.
Practically speaking, things couldn’t be going better for the telehealth industry right now. Whether you’re viewing it from a business perspective or a more altruistic, more-patients-served point of view, expect telemedicine services to expand to private practices, retail clinics, and rural areas at an aggressive pace — and for telecommunication and other technologies to be right there alongside it.