Telemedicine — The Future of Healthcare

An industry overview and snapshot of the mHealth Market

Is this the doctors office of the future? Nope — its already here.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are becoming essential in many industries and this is increasingly relevant within the field of personal health care — as well as medicine in general.

With technological developments, there is a significant potential to address many of the challenges that have historically been experienced domestically and globally in terms of the provision of safe, accessible, affordable, cost-effective, and convenient health care. The application of Telemedicine and Telehealth technologies are principle examples of how ICTs can be used to strengthen healthcare services by overcoming many of the barriers to healthcare (ex. geographical, technological, access, and cost) and provide quality diagnostics and treatment that improve patient well-being among all demographics — particularly traditionally disadvantaged groups and underserved communities.

Telemedicine (which includes fields such as: teleradiology, teledermatogy, telepathology, and telepsychology) is still in its infancy. This article will take a relatively quick look at what this growing industry is as well taking a little diversion into some of the tech solutions that are on the market.

What is Telemedicine and Telehealth?

The World Health Organization has adopted the following definition which can be found in this really long document written in 1998:

“The delivery of health care services, where distance is a critical factor, by all health care professionals using information and communication technologies for the exchange of valid information for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health care providers, all in the interests of advancing the health of individuals and their communities”

In a nutshell, telemedicine allows healthcare providers (doctors, nurses, and other care providers) to evaluate, diagnose, and treat individuals remotely using various forms technology — this has the potential to transform how medicine is practiced and is increasingly becoming an integral part of healthcare infrastructures, particularly in developed countries such as the United States.

If we were to get really technical, telemedicine is a subset of telehealth where:

  • Telehealth: includes a number of services designed to provide patient care and healthcare delivery in a broad perspective that includes not only clinical services, but also education for providers (ex. continuing education) and patients (ex. health promotion), the facilitation of administrative functions, and other public health services.
  • Telemedicine: refers specifically to processes and secure technology used to provide clinical services and care to patients — such as evaluation, diagnosis, treatment, care follow-up, chronic condition and medication management, specialty consultations…(you get the point).

Making the Case: Telemedicine

When we take a look at the big picture, we can see that despite the progress that has been made on the technical side of modern medicine, there are still several issues in both developed and economically developing areas — particularly in terms of access, cost-effectiveness, equity, and quality (healthcare is a complicated beast). Yet, increasing access to computers, the internet, and cellphones has been revolutionizing how people communicate, exchange information, and learn — this presents a significant opportunity for telehealth and telemedicine solutions to address these types of health and access related problems.

The initial applications of telemedicine were originally focused on providing medical care to patients in remote areas that did not have access to healthcare providers or essential technology for diagnosis and treatment (ie. to address healthcare shortages and difficulty in access to treatment). When you break it down to the essential elements, we can see that the core tenants of telemedicine is to:

  1. Provide clinical support
  2. Overcome geographical barriers by remotely connecting patients to healthcare providers and medical technology
  3. Utilize information and communication technology
  4. And ultimately to improve health outcomes

Telemedicine has the incredible potential to: expand access to quality care and provide basic medical treatment to entire populations. It also the potential to provide healthcare delivery in a more convenient way for patients (for example: allowing those with mobility issues to see a doctor from home, remote post-hospitalization care, preventative care support, etc.), to reduce overall health care expenditures, increase patient engagement with a higher continuity of care across platforms, among others — which at the end of the day results in an overall increase of quality patient care.

The Telemedicine Market

Telemedicine is transforming how healthcare is being delivered and there are a number of design (and patient) centric companies and organizations who are re-imagining how medicine can be practiced and are driving the industry forward with innovative technologies and solutions — especially in the Mobile Health (mHealth) markets.

In the United States we have a very interesting health care system (but that’s a topic for another article :P ). In terms of telemedicine, mHealth, is an area that is moving very quickly and is on the cutting edge of telemedicine is moving, especially when looking at how access to medical care can be opened up to a population that already possess and consumes the newest mobile technologies. According to some market reports (you can access one here for the small price of $499 — pocket change really), this industry has the potential to realize a growth of 20.8% by 2020 with a market of $86.6 billion. This market is huge and to discuss it in its entirety would be a little ambitious for the scope of this article — so let’s take a look at a the mobile apps of handful of companies that are doing some really cool game-changing things (like texting a therapist, video-chat with a physician, and e-prescriptions).

A company that partners with health plans, employers, and delivery networks to bring telehealth programs to the market through mobile and web technology that includes urgent care and other services such as chronic care management and post-surgical follow-up.

A telemedicine service that allows customers (ie. patients) to see a doctor to diagnose ailments via video consultations.

A platform that allows users to communicate with a doctor (for free) at any time to ask basic health questions and find out whether a trip to the doctor’s office is necessary. *User must upgrade for medical/treatment services.

A platform that allow a user to communicate with board certified physicians and therapists to provide medical and behavioral health services.

An “uber style” telemedicine app that allows the user to communicate on-demand doctors and conduct a video assessment. If needed, the physician will come to them within two hours to provide care.

An app that allows customers to skip the waiting room and receive urgent care by phone. PlushCare treats non-emergency medical issues.

A cloud-based telemedicine platform helps providers launch their own telehealth programs and extend their points of access to care.

A mobile app that provides the user with 24/7 access to U.S. board-certified doctors and pediatricians. Patients can use the service for non-emergency medical issues and even speak to a social worker or psychologist.

Comparative Analysis

Now that we have a basic overview of the telemedicine market (focus: mHealth), lets take a look at a comparative analysis to identify what features are out there and the different approaches that are being taken. In doing this, we should be able to not only see what is currently out on the market, but also begin to bring into perspective what is working and what isn’t (*note that this analysis was done through a comparison of products and did not incorporate any user interviews, which would provide a much higher level of detail — after all this is a Medium post and it’s getting quite lengthy already).

Comparative Analysis — looking at some of the features and functionality of a few telemedicine platforms

What’s next?

The future of medicine is a very exciting thing to think about. Taking a look at then and now — less than a hundred years ago physicians were using leaches (some still are :P ) and using amputation as the way to prevent infections from spreading, now we have antibiotics and robotic surgery. Medicine is an amazing field of science and practice and telemedicine is the one of the next frontiers.

No doubt there are still a lot of things to figure out — in terms of legal, safety, ethical, and other considerations — but as telehealth progresses, the impact and outcomes can only be anticipated as being amazing. New technology is already on its way and augmented reality, virtual medicine advances, biotech, and wearables will be integrated into this landscape to provide additional methods for the provision of care, patient monitoring, diagnosis, and treatment. All of this will increase the level of physician-patient interaction that leveraged and facilitated by technology and will require new ways of thinking about healthcare, tech, and medicine as well a signifiant amounts of user-centric and human orientated design thinking.

Disclaimer (typically referred to as what the lawyers make you say). These reviews and evaluations have not been solicited by any of the companies represented. I have also never used any of the applications in this articles as a patient for medical services. This article is for information purposes only and does not seek to provide medical treatment or advice nor is it intended to advertise the services of any of the companies, organizations, or products reviewed. Also — please don’t do anything stupid and blame me. I’m a product designer with a background in public health, not a doctor or something fancy like that. If you need to see a doctor for any reason, go see them. Read at your own risk :P