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homeless man on street waiting for vaccine

BY Leo Hynett

Healthcare

What Does the Future of (Tele)Medicine Hold?

As virtual medicine becomes the norm, will we stop differentiating between ‘telemedicine’ and standard healthcare altogether?

JUNE 04  2021

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With digital-first healthcare becoming the norm thanks to the pandemic, many health providers are left wondering what the future of healthcare will look like. From futuristic implanted tech to the more familiar video calls, it is predicted a lot of our medical care will be delivered through technology in the future.

There will certainly still be a time and place for in-person check-ups and conversations, but virtual methods will be the first port of call.

 

The end of ‘telehealth’ as we know it

When Miles Romney, the CTO of telehealth company eVisit, was asked what he thought telehealth would look like in 2050, he stated:

‘”Telehealth” won’t exist in 2050. It won’t exist in 2025. It will just be “health.” It won’t be “virtual care,” it will just be “care.” The lines between remote treatment and in-facility treatment will become so blurred that any distinction will become vestigial.’

His idea of healthcare in 2050 is an incredibly futuristic one – full of ocular implants and neurological interfaces it feels like something out of a science fiction novel, but perhaps it is not as far fetched as it seems. With recent breakthroughs in brain implant technology research and the consumer-facing plans of Elon Musk’s company Neuralink, the idea of implanted health trackers by 2050 now seems plausible.

When asked if we’re anywhere close to this vision now, Romney was brutally – but optimistically – honest:

Current technology is ‘as close to that vision as a two-ton UNIVAC computer is to an iPhone. Close enough to put us on the path, ignite our imaginations and perform some of those end-state tasks, but decades away from the sophistication and finesse that make it all work well, work together, work affordably and work beautifully.

Though much of the described vision is a work of fantasy, it represents a future where ‘telemedicine’ as we call it today is completely integrated into healthcare. It represents telemedicine as simply the latest iteration of healthcare, not a separate entity.

 

A view of the future
At the annual American Telemedicine Association conference, Livongo founder and former Allscripts CEO Glen Tullman succinctly summed up his idea of telemedicine’s future: ‘patients will expect care to meet them where they are.’ The implication here is that medicine will continue this shift to being at the fingertips of those who need it. This means continued growth in the telemedicine sphere but also the continued existence of in-person support and appointments when this is needed.

The future of healthcare (here meaning in-person medicine and telemedicine alike) will be one that adapts to meet the needs of patients on an individual basis. Most likely this will continue to be the digital-first model we have seen come to the fore during the pandemic with streamlined triage onwards to either further virtual care or in person visits with professionals.

 

Improved access to care
One of the greatest benefits of telemedicine is improved access to care. This is something that will be carried forward into the future of medicine with people being able to reach out for advice from qualified experts whenever they need it.

The 24/7 support of platforms such as Babylon Health means people are no longer restricted to GP appointments in the working week. Combined with being able to access advice from your smartphone wherever you are, the need to book half a day off work to visit your GP will be a thing of the past.

In regards to mental health care, telemedicine can be effective in lifting some of the strain from the shoulders of professionals and freeing up time for these already heavily burdened services:

Simple communication methods such as e-mail and text messaging should be used more extensively to share information about symptoms of burnout, depression, anxiety, and PTSD during COVID-19, to offer cognitive and/or relaxation skills to deal with minor symptoms, and to encourage access to online self-help programs.’

By moving simpler conversations such as these online professionals will be left with more time to discuss more complex and urgent issues with patients. As such, even if patients are accessing ‘standard’ in-person healthcare they are benefitting from the telemedicine system as it has allowed the time for their appointment.

 

Room for improvement

Telemedicine is not yet perfect and there are definitely some aspects of seeing a GP in person that it isn’t ready to replace. For example, it’s easier to pick up on small facial and vocal cues about someone’s emotional state in person than over video platforms, making accurate diagnosis of complex mental health issues more effective in person.

There are also concerns that telemedicine has the potential to just replicate the digital divide, creating more healthcare inequalities as opposed to eliminating them. It is important that ‘design, implementation and policy considerations [are] taken into account when developing virtual care technology’ so that it is accessible to as much of the population as possible. Improvements to internet infrastructure and efforts to improve access to technology would need to be run in parallel to any virtual care developments. In the interim, access to virtual care for a majority would mean that those who cannot access the virtual options would have an easier time accessing in-person services due to lower demand.

Summary

Telemedicine is certainly here for the longterm, but the name may not be. The pandemic accelerated the growth of the sector and drove rapid adoption of the technologies, but the services are far from a temporary measure.

In-person appointments will remain and work in tandem with telemedicine platforms, creating a new merged version of care. The two worlds are already interconnected, soon they will be indistinguishable.

 

 

About the Author: Leo Hynett

Leo Hynett is a contributing Features Writer, with a particular interest in Culture, the Arts and LGBTQ+ Politics.

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