Lack Of Connectivity Not An Issue For Modern TelemedicineNovember 4, 2019 No Comments
Featured article by Scott Sullivan, Chief Revenue Officer, GlobalMed
Since it went mainstream in the 1990s, the Internet has become the defining cultural and business phenomena of our time. From the rise of the world’s most influential tech companies to the impact of social media, the Internet has shaped every aspect of modern life. A prime example: telemedicine’s revolutionary impact on healthcare.
Virtual health has transformed both patient lives and care delivery in multiple ways. Even in areas with provider shortages, patients can receive specialist care and focused medical expertise; better preventive care can help them avoid more serious conditions and more expensive hospital bills. Providers can expand their geographic service coverage without driving to different cities and better monitor patients with chronic conditions. Telemedicine can also reduce the healthcare industry’s carbon footprint by eliminating numerous staff, provider and patient car trips every day.
Rural Roadblocks to Better Healthcare
There’s one small problem here: virtual health can only expand access to care when Internet access is present. While this seems like a given to most of us, the reality is that many people aren’t online – from far-flung corners of the earth to rural pockets of the United States. Some regions simply fall outside the jurisdiction of service providers, while some residents can’t afford the necessary devices and data plans. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that 31 percent of American rural households still lack access to broadband Internet.
Unfortunately, patients without Internet access are also likely to live in regions without specialist care and medical expertise – or even hospitals and primary care providers (PCPs.) Both specialists and general practitioners tend to gravitate to urban areas that offer a fertile patient pool. Despite rural Americans making up 15-20 percent of the U.S. population, the National Rural Health Association reports there are only 30 specialists per 100,000 people in rural communities, compared to 263 specialists per 100,000 urban residents.
Rural villages in other parts of the world suffer from even more dire provider shortages. In some Zimbabwe villages, healthcare is restricted to a monthly visit from a nurse. When someone is sick or injured on the other 29 days of the month, they are carried by other villagers on foot to the nurse’s current location.
In short, the people that could benefit from telemedicine the most can’t actually take advantage of it. This is an example of what experts call the Digital Divide – a gap between people with access to online resources and opportunities and people without. Normally viewed as an educational and professional roadblock, the Digital Divide also presents a conundrum for the healthcare industry by blocking telemedicine where it could do the most good.
Bridging the Digital Divide
Technology leaders and healthcare organizations have recognized the repercussions of digital darkness but refuse to be held back by it. They turn to modern telehealth platforms designed to work even with limited Internet access.
The Havasupai Native American tribe lives at the bottom of a canyon within Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, with little or no modern technology or electronic communication with the outside world. The only way in or out of the canyon is by pack mule or helicopter—a big problem when someone needs medical attention. But that problem has been solved with a portable “clinic in a box” that enables Havasupai patients to be seen via telehealth, either at Flagstaff Medical Center in Flagstaff (FMC), or by a specialist located in Phoenix or Tucson.
This “clinic in a box” is solar-powered with a battery that lasts for up to a day. It uses satellite communications to reach remote providers. It can measure vital signs, aid in primary care, ENT, dermatology, urology, cardiology, behavioral consults and even to help place a PICC line.
There is a different kind of challenge on airplanes that have commercial inflight connectivity. Since these satellite-based connections provide relatively low bandwidth with sometimes one hundred or more passengers using the limited service, an app was created that allows the crew on planes to make high-definition medical video calls and maintain the connection even if other users have reduced the available bandwidth.
Similarly, when a hospital ship uses a BGAN portable global satellite transmitter, which has an extremely low bandwidth, their corpsmen can connect and get a virtual medical consult with advanced telehealth equipment. When a team of Navy medical corpsmen goes into a village in an impoverished or disaster ridden country, they’re able to connect the telehealth kit with BGAN technology and provide top-quality care.
Telemedicine requires a network that can support real-time high-quality video, which often means wired networks. With 5G technology, which has lower latency and higher capacity, healthcare systems can enable mobile networks to handle telemedicine consults, greatly expanding the reach of the program.
By implementing telehealth solutions that can adapt to available connectivity, even rural areas with limited Internet access can establish a stronger culture of care in several ways:
1. Patients can receive specialty care that wouldn’t otherwise be available in their community. They may live in a remote location, but telehealth can connect them to specialists in cardiology, dermatology, endocrinology, gastroenterology, infectious disease, nephrology, neurosurgery, obstetrics, orthopedics, pulmonology, rheumatology, urology and other disciplines.
2. Instead of missing annual exams and screenings or being asked to sacrifice wages while traveling four hours for an appointment, patients can receive consistent preventive care while staying in their communities – arresting some conditions before they advance and helping patients avoid the higher costs of extensive medical services.
3. Providers can boost their productivity and see a higher number of patients in an expanded geographic region, without visiting multiple clinics in one day. They can also detect and treat issues faster by monitoring patients at home, intervening when needed and reducing readmissions.
4. Daily provider commutes and medical tourism can generate considerable amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases. Telemedicine visits can dramatically reduce transportation by keeping everyone at home – shrinking the industry’s carbon footprint.
Sharing the Promise of Modern Technology
Technology-enabled healthcare is already changing current care delivery models and patient outcomes. Extending online access and eliminating the Digital Divide can offer an even playing field in healthcare – and bring the advantages of 21st century technology to everyone, no matter where they live.
About the Author
Scott Sullivan is Chief Revenue Officer and SVP of Worldwide Sales for GlobalMed, an international provider of virtual care solutions. With over 15 million consults delivered in 60 countries and specializing in both federal and commercial spaces, GlobalMed’s virtual health platform deploys in its highly secure Azure environment and is used worldwide from the Department of Veteran Affairs and White House Medical Unit to rural hospitals and villages in Africa.
DIGITAL HEALTH, SOCIAL BUSINESS