Faced with new demands posed by patients in lockdown, tech has stepped up in the battle against COVID-19. Since the outbreak began, demand for telehealth has soared by 500% as patients access medical advice via video on their phone, tablet, or computer. It’s easily one of the most significant transitions to occur in healthcare. But is telehealth here to stay? And how will tech change the future of frontline care?
by: Andrew Upah
The tech supporting healthcare heroes
There’s nothing new about telemedicine — it’s been around for at least two decades. Yet, before the crisis, only 1 in 10 Americans had tried it. Now, with frontline workers swamped and at risk of contracting the virus, telehealth — from companies like TelaDoc, Amwell, and SnapMD — provides a safe way for patients to consult their physician. And as a result, health care organizations are scrambling to employ a range of technologies from online triaging tools to robots and artificial intelligence (AI) to assess high-risk patients.
With frontline workers under pressure, health companies are using self-triaging tools like chatbots to walk consumers through a checklist of symptoms and frequently asked questions prior to speaking with a professional. Providence Digital Innovations Group in Washington reported a spike to more than one million messages through its chatbot, Grace, within a month of the breakout.
- Telemedicine and remote monitoring
Telehealth provider Amwell reported a 257% increase in patient visits compared with the same time last year — and up to 700% in harder-hit areas. Telehealth platforms are also enabling families to stay connected with loved ones who are being cared for in the hospital. Similarly, remote patient monitoring (RPM) via tablet is being used to monitor patients with chronic illnesses — and those suspected to have COVID-19 — as they shelter in place.
Hospitals across the country are using doctor-operated robots armed with iPads and stethoscopes to chat with patients while physicians remain outside the room. It’s hoped that future robots will be part of the frontline in the diagnosis and screening of infectious diseases. With thermal sensors and facial recognition, mobile bots could monitor a patient’s temperature and possibly retrace contacts of infected individuals to alert them to the potential risk.
- Artificial intelligence
Given the overwhelming pressure on healthcare services, COVID-19 is fast becoming a catalyst for AI adoption in healthcare. From data sets to x-rays, deep learning AI is helping doctors to interpret patient information, helping them gain a better understanding of how the virus spreads and how patients react to treatments. In the future, long wait times could be dramatically reduced by relying on AI tools to provide early readings.
- Screening tools
In support of health services, tech giants like Apple and Google recently launched a screening app and website that shares trusted information and help users decide whether they need to be tested for the virus.
Bumps in the road
While new healthcare tech has plenty of upsides, any crisis-driven change will come with its own challenges.
- Cybersecurity: With many employees now working remotely there’s justifiable concern about health systems being targeted by opportunistic criminals. Despite virtual desktop interfaces (VDI) and robust endpoint security, this shift to a virtual workforce leaves health organizations vulnerable for the short term.
- Digital divide: The near-ubiquitous use of mobile phones worldwide means that the hardware barrier to remote healthcare is no longer an issue, but a lack of adequate broadband connectivity is still limiting options for those most in need, including seniors.
- Privacy: Google’s sister company Verily’s symptom triaging tool sparked criticism over concerns about how parent company Alphabet intends to use screening data. Tensions exist between the value tech brings to healthcare and the accessibility of companies to sensitive patient information.
The road ahead for telehealth
The intersection between tech and healthcare has become a crucial battleground in the frontline fight against coronavirus. Scaleable, safe, and speedy, it’s proven essential in protecting healthcare workers and patients alike. And as innovation in telehealth and other tech-enabled services continues to evolve at pace, it is likely to prompt a fundamental shift in the way we experience healthcare long after the crisis recedes.