A Quick Look at 3 Fast-Moving Trends in Telemedicine

Telemedicine is evolving quickly and has the potential to significantly affect healthcare. This blog post provides insight into three fast-moving telemedicine trends that are impacting healthcare consumers, providers and professionals who assess risk.

Like most people, I visit the doctor in person. If I need to, I tend to follow up in person as well, but also use email or a phone call. Kids today are growing up with apps like FaceTime and Snapchat, and because of their high comfort level with technology, they will probably conduct much of their adult healthcare online. Some of their generation will become doctors and, as physicians, will be very comfortable treating patients in a clinic, at bedside or online.

There is much discussion among healthcare and insurance professionals about this and other trends that are driving telemedicine. We would like to think that we have identified today’s risks to the best of our ability, but the road ahead is rapidly evolving. Let’s look at a few current trends within telemedicine: 

Wearable Technology & IoMT
Wearable technology includes everything from fitness trackers and smartwatches to virtual reality headsets. While some physicians are challenged by the amount of data generated by these devices and difficult user interfaces, wearables are here to stay.Global shipments of smart wearables are predicted to be close to 1.4 billion by 2019.2  This space is changing at a rapid pace, particularly for healthcare. When I started thinking about this blog a few weeks ago, an Apple Watch could show pictures and reminders. Then Apple announced that the next version of their watch will show an EKG that can alert the wearer of an irregular heart rhythm. A physician could download this data from the cloud in real time. The watch will become a telemedicine wearable - and part of the Internet of Medical Things.

And what is the Internet of Medical Things, or IoMT? You may have heard of the Internet of Things (or IoT) which involves devices, such as smart home appliances that can be controlled by a smartphone. The IoMT involves similarly connected devices – such as wearables, implants, skin sensors and at-home monitoring devices – that allow for remote patient monitoring. These can communicate with each other and with cloud health data systems. Algorithms sort through cloud data to identify information that can help healthcare providers determine interventions or treatment plans. A physician or caregiver can be alerted if a patient needs emergency care, has missed a dose of medicine or an important appointment. By 2020, the FTC estimates that 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet.3 An estimated 40% of IoT devices will have healthcare applications, making them part of the IoMT.4 

Virtual Medical Centers
These are clinics and hospitals without beds, waiting rooms or the chance for exposure to other patients who may have infectious diseases. Imagine a large call center staffed by physicians who are communicating in real time with hospitals, specialists and patients via phone, email, video, apps, medical monitoring systems and electronic record systems. They are practicing medicine as they would in person, just remotely and in conjunction with onsite providers. In underserved areas, this gives patients access to care from specialists that would otherwise be limited or unavailable. It can also serve as remote medical support during a natural disaster or crisis.

A handful of healthcare providers are at the forefront of this trend. Mercy Hospital in Missouri runs a 125,000 square-foot virtual medical center. It staffs Neurologists specializing in stroke care, Hospitalists who monitor patients around the clock, and Intensivists who run Intensive Care Units in 30 hospitals across five states. 700 physicians, nurses and other staff provide healthcare and technology support.5  Inova Health Systems in Virginia also staffs Intensivists and Neurologists who manage patient care for 71 beds across 14 regional hospitals. In addition, Psychiatrists, Pediatricians and Dermatologists provide remote care and on-demand services. Inova’s telemedicine services are part Virginia’s emergency response plan.6

Parity for Telemedicine and In-person Visits
Innovations in healthcare often drive changes in state and private healthcare insurance programs. Not all programs currently cover telemedicine the same way that in-person visits are covered; however, this is changing as telemedicine becomes more accepted. So far, 32 states have passed laws allowing for parity between in-person and telemedicine visits. Ultimately, this will benefit consumers of healthcare by encouraging the use of telemedicine. Michigan, for example, has seen a 77.5% increase in telemedicine encounters after supporting parity.7Medicare, Medicaid, and the Department of Veterans Affairs are all covering some telemedicine visits now.8

Telemedicine and the technology driving it will continue to evolve quickly and make storylines. The trends discussed here are just a few of the many that are shaping healthcare. The impact of this evolution on healthcare consumers, providers and professionals who assess risk is significant.

1. “Explaining the Basics of the Internet of Things for Healthcare”, HealthIT Analytics, September 28, 2018, https://healthitanalytics.com/features/explaining-the-basics-of-the-internet-of-things-for-healthcare
2. Statista, http://www.statista.com/statistics/486039/smart-wearable-device-shipments-worldwide
3.  Id, note 1.
4. Throttlenet via Bradley University, “Emerging Technologies and Innovation in Patient-centered Care”, January 9, 2018, https://onlinedegrees.bradley.edu/resources/infographics/emerging-technologies-and-innovation-in-patient-centered-care/
5. “Is Telemedicine the Future of Care”, Mercy Virtual, February 12, 2018, http://www.mercyvirtual.net/telemedicine-future-care/
6. Inova, https://www.inova.org/healthcare-services/inova-telemedicine-program
7. University of Texas Biomedical Informatics via Forbes, “What are The Latest Trends in Telemedicine in 2018”, July 31, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/07/31/what-are-the-latest-trends-in-telemedicine-in-2018/#67729b96b9e7 
8. “Virtual Doctor Visits are Getting More Popular, But Questions Remain About Who Pays”, The Washington Post, May 6, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/virtual-doctor-visits-are-getting-more-popular-but-questions-remain-about-who-pays/2018/05/04/cbe262f6-4c85-11e8-b725-92c89fe3ca4c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c3a0e23cfb45