Health care has a problem, and it goes well beyond the insurance questions and how everyday Americans can afford to pay for it.
For generations, medical care in the US and around the world has looked more or less the same. Every year, we all make an appointment and visit our doctor. Beyond that, when something goes wrong and we aren’t feeling well, we make another appointment and go back to the office for another visit.
As a result, health care has become an in-person, at-the-office experience for more or less everyone. We take time off of work, drive to the doctor’s office, and spend at least an hour or two talking about our health every year.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s 2017, and nothing is done in person anymore that can be done remotely.
We can order shoes from our smartphones, work remotely, order pizza via text messages, and even meet our future spouses virtually before ever crossing paths in real life. Health care is no different.
“Every physician has a smartphone these days,” says James Laskaris, an emerging medical technologies analyst at MD Buyline. “And most people have a smartphone. Couple that with a network that can send anything anywhere in the world with some sort of smart sensor—maybe it’s an ECG, or a pressure sensor, or something like that—and now you have the ability to take any kind of patient parameter or image and send it just about anywhere in the world.”
We’re not talking about yesterday’s heartbeat monitors or apps anymore, either. Today’s connected ECGs, for example, can send real-time updates via the patient’s smartphone, delivering constant updates to their doctor that are recorded for later analysis. Doctors are even implanting monitors—including replacement hips and knees that have sensors built in—that can measure pressure, blood flow, and more, all in real-time without any action on the patient’s part at all.
“In other words, the implant itself can measure the stability of the implant,” Laskaris says.” It can also measure heat, so it knows if you’re getting an infection. All this tells the physician that they’ve implanted it successfully.”
All of this is based on microelectronic technology (MEMS), which has been in development since the early 1990s. What was originally dedicated to electronics has become focused on ways to implant those microscopic devices in the body. So now we have access to tiny sensors for artificial hips, artificial knees, pacemakers, and more that can connect directly to our smartphones and send data anywhere in the world.
Networking pioneer Cisco is also getting into the act, working with both home systems and payers in the area of extended care, or any type of health care that happens beyond the four walls of the doctor’s office. The company is currently working on two collaboration platforms for the health care market: Spark, which is a cloud-based service that integrates distributed software with the company’s own custom-designed hardware; and Cisco Extended Care, which adds software-as-a-service functionality to much of the third-party equipment that doctors and patients already use.
It’s all about video integration, including both scheduled and non-scheduled consultations, as well as on-demand video visits, all that can be tied into third-party tools in ways that make it both seamless and scalable.
“So, if I’m a doctor I can have a consultation with another provider, maybe one that’s a part of my network or at the same hospital campus, and I can just launch a video from within my normal applications,” explains Barbara Casey, Global Healthcare & Life Sciences Director at Cisco. “It also allows for a patient to create a video with their provider—whether that’s a doctor or another type of clinician. So, the beauty of [the system] is that it really allows our customers to use any investment they’ve made, whether it’s a collaboration software package or hardware, in their own environment, but also allow patients with no infrastructure of their own, just their mobile devices or their desktops, to really enable that video intersection with a provider remotely.”
Benefits Beyond Outcomes
The upside for patients as a result of all this is clear: better care, and better health outcomes, without having to go to the doctor’s office or hospital every day.
But telemedicine, which is the category that includes connected monitoring devices, is rapidly transforming the medical industry as well, allowing doctors to see and treat far more patients than ever before, while lowering costs across the board. And it is growing fast. Over the last two years, Medicare reimbursements for telemedicine services increased 25 percent to become a $2 billion annual market.
For doctors, the real excitement is that these tools allow them to be in two places at once. Keeping an eye on a patient via video, looking at their medical records on their smartphone, studying their X-rays and CT scans from wherever they are, and completing almost any other tasks that are part of their regular work.
On top of that new convenience, a stay in the ICU today’s costs patients—and their insurers—a lot of money. On average, the fees start at $1,500 per day and go up from there. The catch for hospitals is that they constantly need to be cycling patients through their facilities in order to free up bed space for others. There simply is never enough supply to keep up with demand, even at today’s prices. Factoring in our aging population, and the need for qualified, and affordable medical care has become acute.
“What telehealth does is, now these patients can be monitored—all of their physiological parameters can be measured remotely, including blood pressure, ECG, StO2, and more—and their physician can have a direct video feed to that patient, along with their medical records,” Laskaris says.
With that ability, that doctor can now keep track of and treat a couple hundred patients at a time, all in a way that is cost-effective, scalable and doesn’t compromise patient health. This technology allows medical professionals to make decisions that both to save money for their patients while also offering the highest level of care, without having to worry about overhead or bed space or any of the considerations they face today.
Says Laskaris, “Studies have shown that a telehealth system can save every hospital system in the country $422 per patient. Think about that. It’s game-changing.”
Disclaimer: This article was originally published online for ASME.