COVID-19, combined with the widespread availability of high-speed telecommunications, has catapulted telemedicine and telehealth services into the limelight. The American Medical Association (AMA) has estimated that around 60% to 90% of clinicians have begun using some form of telehealth service since the beginning of the pandemic. However, one of the main challenges that remain is optimizing this field for operation beyond a global pandemic. This is where the use of innovative technologies in telemedicine comes in.
Five technologies that are advancing telemedicine
Currently, healthcare systems across the world are experiencing perfect storms of external and internal care delivery challenges. These include overburdened doctors, declining reimbursements, rising care delivery costs, increased risk to patients and care providers, and poor health outcomes. The use of smart technology in telemedicine provides the healthcare industry with ways to mitigate these challenges by leveraging advanced innovations.
Let’s take a closer look at the five technologies that are shaping the future of telemedicine.
1. Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is expanding the scope of technology in telemedicine to areas such as teleradiology, telepathology, teledermatology, and telepsychiatry. AI-driven smart technologies such as care-assistive apps and predictive algorithms are enabling more than just remotely screening the diagnostic needs of patients. It’s helping reduce the burden on healthcare professionals (HCPs) by automatically translating prescriptions into Electronic Health Records (EHRs) and generating medical reports, especially in the face of crisis.
For instance, healthcare technology company DrFirst has released a patented SmartSig AI technology that accurately translates patient medication history into hospitals’ and health systems’ EHRs, without the need for human intervention.
AI-enabled EHRs are also aiding HCPs to improve the interoperability of data and remote patient monitoring. Nuance, 3M, and Amazon Comprehend Medical are some companies working to leverage this technology for EHR systems.
Additionally, AI-based networking models can increase the speed of discovering specialists, thereby cutting down the waiting hours at hospitals. For instance, by implementing telemedicine screenings for diabetic retinopathy at its security net facilities, clinicians at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services reduced visits to specialty care professionals by more than 14,000.
AI-powered healthcare chatbots are also gaining popularity across the globe. They converse with people, answer their queries, educate them about the symptoms of a disease, and help them schedule appointments with doctors, completely in the virtual plane.
For example, Engagely AI has developed a smart telehealth bot that works with hospitals to help them check medicine inventory, suggest alternative treatment options, and follow up with patients for routine check-ups. It also helps HCPs check patient history, conduct remote diagnosis, and generate digital prescriptions.
2. Augmented and virtual reality
Telemedicine and all types of mixed reality (MR), such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) go along very well. MR technologies let clinicians get real-time information on patients’ vitals and experiences, which can improve the accuracy of remote diagnostics.
For instance, Iflexion, an AR company, develops apps that aid clinicians through virtual real-time diagnosis and health-tracking. It streamlines hospital workflows and encourages productive health management within and outside of clinical facilities.
AR-enhanced telemedicine tools can also be used for better diagnostic collaboration among medical professionals. Telehealth platforms, like XRHealth, that have AR support allow clinicians to share the 3D images of their cases during virtual consultations with other professionals.
Robotics has forayed into various fields of telemedicine. Tele-robots make remote patient monitoring, diagnosis, and virtual care easier and more accurate. Telerobots can monitor the health status of patients in real-time, and alert clinicians if any adverse change occurs in their condition.
For instance, iRobot has partnered with InTouch Health to develop robots for remote healthcare settings, including ICUs, patient wards, operating and procedure rooms. Other than remote monitoring, robots are also helping doctors set up virtual visits with their patients.
VGo Communications has developed a two-wheeled robot that is currently in use at several healthcare facilities including Florida Hospital, Intermountain Healthcare, and Children’s Hospital Boston. It offers remotely-located physicians the ability to video-call their patients admitted to hospitals, along with their latest medical information.
The Children’s Hospital in Boston is also conducting certain pilot projects where patients take telerobots home with them after their hospital stay for help with postoperative consultations and care.
4. IoT and nanotechnology
The Internet of Things (IoT) is rapidly changing the healthcare scenario by focusing on the way people, devices, and applications interact with each other. It is helping shape the use of technology in telemedicine through virtual care networks and access to in-depth patient data.
Advancements in telediagnostics rely on large volumes of physiological and health data which new medical surveillance and diagnostic tools can offer. That’s where nanotechnology-based IoT comes in. Smart pills and bandages based on this technology can record body temperature, collect tissue samples and secretions, and take pictures of the affected site inside the human body.
The ability to examine the human body, its drug therapies, and medical devices at the nano level, ultimately ensures a much higher level of accuracy in medicine, in terms of both diagnostics and treatments. The Atmo Gas Capsule, for example, when ingested, examines the gases in the human gut to report any disorders. Its sensors can help detect the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body, as well as the presence of any harmful substances.
Nanowear, a US-based startup, has developed a heart failure management and remote monitoring undergarment and closed-loop machine learning platform known as SimpleSENSE. It uses cloth-based nanosensors to capture and record phonocardiography, stroke volume and cardiac output. This data can then be transmitted to EHR systems to help doctors with remote assessments and diagnosis, whenever required.
5. 3D Printing
3D printing is already used in healthcare for diagnostics and surgery, including the creation of bones, lung tissue, and cartilage. The use of this technology in telemedicine is also promising.
The New England Journal of Medicine has dictated a case where 3D printing was used for telesurgery. A newborn baby’s trachea was repaired with a splint which was 3D printed directly from the CT scan. There have been other instances where hearts, bones, and other tissues have been printed for telesurgeries.
3D printing allows doctors to print out the contents of scans sent remotely by patients. Doctors can then analyze detailed 3D-printed patient models for accurate diagnosis and develop treatment plans. Furthermore, prosthetists can 3D-print prostheses without the patient having to be physically present.
As the use of technology in telemedicine becomes more prevalent, we’re observing a rising number of players expand their presence in this market, including big tech companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook. To succeed, innovation that places consumer and provider needs at the fore will be imperative.
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