7 Trends Shaping the Future of Telehealth
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1. Increasing Acceptance of Telehealth as a Standard Of Care
Medical imaging was the first field to fully embrace telemedicine. Medical professionals have relied on long-distance transmission of imaging for more than four decades. In its infancy, the practice was referred to as “teleradiology”: sending x-rays from facility to facility for fast use and analysis. This practice is so common today that the term is barely recognized; it’s become a defacto standard in almost all hospitals.
Today, x-rays, CT scans, MRI results, and other information is routinely shared by medical practitioners separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles. As this kind of sharing becomes the rule rather than the exception, one can expect to see it addressed and assumed in the regulations which govern healthcare at the state and federal levels.
2. Reduced Reliance on Reimbursement Models
Reimbursement was the standard way to pay for telemedicine in the past, but that is likely to change moving forward. Healthcare is no longer provided just by independent physicians and institutions; modern professionals are typically governed by accountable care organizations, managed care groups, and other large concerns. Managed care currently accounts for more than seventy million patients in the United States – nearly a quarter of the population. As decision makers operate at greater and greater distance from local patients, the transmission of medical data becomes more and more necessary. This will lead to its absorption into the “overhead” of medical expenses instead of being treated as a separate reimbursable.
3. International Collaboration
In its infancy, the use of telemedicine across national borders was relatively rare. A few pioneering charities made use of it to allow long-distance analysis of medical data and greater access to medical care. Now that worldwide data transmission networks are much more robust and medical regulations have grown familiar with telemedicine, the infrastructure is in place to deliver much better medical care to foreign countries. While there are definitely still issues to overcome, (e.g. cultural bias, trade policies, payment schemes, technology standards, and international certifications and regulations) the profit potential of long-distance medicine is becoming enormous. The sheer possibilities will lead healthcare providers to iron out the last difficulties, making international medicine a common practice in the future.
4. Peer Sharing Instead Of Hub Sharing
The early days of telemedicine saw government-supported programs established throughout the United States. In general, all of these networks utilized a centralized “hub” model in which information was collected from a wide area and fed to a major hospital for use. In the future, though, more and more communication will occur directly between individual healthcare facilities. These “peer-to-peer” networks are springing up in which equal partners join together to share their remote medical resources. Examples include the Ontario Telehealth Network and the Arizona Telemedicine Program.
5. Mobile Health
Commonly referred to as mHealth, Mobile Health is one of the most exciting new developments in telemedicine. The possibility of widely distributing medical information to individuals (both practitioners and patients) using mobile technology is extremely promising. The possibilities are vast and encouraging, even though a thorough understanding of how these programs should work (and be paid for!) is still years away. The continuing growth of wireless communications technology will doubtless help bring mHealth initiatives to maturity in the years to come.
6. Virtual Medical Centers
There are a number of exciting pilot programs in place to distribute the value of centralized specialists across a wider geographic area. Mercy Hospitals is pioneering this field with a new virtual care center in Missouri intended to serve a four-state area. Inova Health Systems is trying out a more modest program in northern Virginia, where telemedicine facilities allow a group of intensivists to deliver their services to 122 ICU beds located all over the state.
7. New Remote Clinical Services
Since radiology has proven to be such an effective field for outsourcing via telemedicine, many hospitals are now looking at the possibility of splitting off many other specializations. Psychiatry, neurology, and many other disciplines are ripe for decentralization employing telehealth practices. There are already several vendors providing remote care in the fields of dermatology, mental health, and stroke care. Hospitals themselves are also looking to get into the act, leading to a volatile and competitive (but rapidly expanding!) market.