A guest post from Ron Emerson, Polycom’s Global Director of Healthcare. Ron is a Registered Nurse and respected expert on telehealth. He is also a former member of the board of Directors for the American Telemedicine Association and Chair of the Industry Council.
The term ‘telehealth’ has evolved from much more of a concept, to become something which is a key consideration for the future of healthcare. Telehealth can essentially be described as the transfer of electronic medical data from one location to another – which would include sharing medical records, remote patient monitoring, or healthcare professionals consulting each other during a medical procedure such as a patient review or even surgery.
What telehealth also encompasses, is the increased access to medical care and professional consultation for people across any distance, helping patients to consult doctors or specialists, and receive advice and even prescriptions without having to travel to hospitals. Additionally, telehealth extends the standards of healthcare available to patients based in rural areas, effectively helping them achieve the same quality of care available in major cities where generally large specialist hospitals and medical facilities are located.
Faced with rapidly ageing populations and a shortage of medical practitioners and specialists, many countries are looking to implement strategies to develop new healthcare models. According to a report by IHS Technology, the global telehealth market is expected to grow ten-fold by 2018, to $4.5 billion, up from $449.6 million in 2013. This is a huge indication of how, amid challenges such as ageing populations, and management of chronic diseases, the healthcare industry will seek to change how it operates. Now, more than ever, the drivers for telehealth have come into renewed focus:
1. The rise of ‘super-aged’ societies: When it comes to the challenges and impact of an ageing population, there has been no time like the present in preparing for its effects on an economy. Currently, 23 per cent of the population of Japan is over 65 years old, while in India, the over-65s will make up 19 per cent of its total population by the year 2015. And now, a new report by Moody’s has shown that the number of ‘super-aged’ countries (i.e. when the population over 65 exceeds 20%) would reach 13 in 2020 and 34 in 2030. According to the report, some societies in Asia are forecast to age particularly rapidly – namely China, Hong Kong, and Korea. This is particularly pertinent when having to prepare for a number of factors, including a greater demand for aged-care, and increased pressure on governments to deliver quality health services with a reduced workforce. Already, healthcare providers such as the Silver Chain Group in Australia, are using technology to service the country’s largest state, Western Australia, covering an area of over 2.5 million square kilometres (over 976,000 miles). Through the use of mobile video collaboration via tablets and smartphones, patients are able to connect to required specialists – all from the comfort of their own home without having to travel long distances. This model of innovative healthcare delivery has been so successful, Silver Chain was even recently awarded the ITAC Aged Care IT Award for Best Implementation of the Year!
2. Coordinated healthcare Every industry looks to smarter ways of working, in making best use of personnel and resources to achieve the best possible outcomes. Healthcare is no different in that patient services require a coordinated effort between several parties including doctors, specialists, nurses, therapists, and pharmacists. In a typical patient’s case, a number of interactions are necessary from first consultation to recovery and having that reassurance that these services are available anytime, across any distance goes a long way in helping prevent conditions deteriorating. Telehealth would enable better integration between all care and health service providers for improved patient outcomes, and ultimately ensure more efficient collaboration between practitioners.
3. New opportunities emerging: A report by Frost & Sullivan in 2013 indicated that telehealth opportunities in Asia Pacific are on the rise, and governments across the region will continue to be the major architects of such initiatives. In one indication, South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare announced late last year that it would make a push towards telehealth in 2015. The country’s president has acknowledged the importance of telehealth adoption as current healthcare systems cannot address growing demand for healthcare services as the population ages. Additionally, improvements in broadband infrastructure, such as Australia’s NBN and Singapore’s Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network, can support a wider spread adoption of telehealth initiatives.
4. Prevention and wellness: How can healthcare providers use telehealth to reach patients and prevent some conditions from deteriorating? Today’s healthcare model requires prevention and wellness programmes, and access to expert consultations whenever, and wherever the need arises. In the UK, for example, the National Health Service (NHS) Cumbria and Lancashire Cardiac and Stroke Network uses video collaboration technology for time-critical diagnostic consultation and applied treatment for cardiac and stroke patients. In this case, remote doctors connect with patients during early stages of a stroke, when intervention is most critical, for real-time, face-to-face assessment.
Similarly, the Canterbury and West Coast District Health Boards in New Zealand are using telehealth solutions to connect patients face-to-face with specialists, via technology such as desktop video collaboration, mobile software on tablets and smartphones, and a Polycom practitioner cart. The technology implementation has benefited children the most, as paediatricians have been enabled to cope with seeing more patients, whereas the workload was previously a struggle. Implementing telehealth services increases the access to care, for a larger population helping to reach patients and prevent some conditions from deteriorating and turning into chronic or acute diseases. This is particularly relevant with conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, which require frequent monitoring. Patients largely prefer to be responsible for their own health and recover from home. Technology would contribute to a large saving in time, cost, and indeed unnecessary hospitalisation or readmission. This can be achieved simply by opening up the opportunity to have access to specialists anywhere, and enabling remote monitoring of a patient’s condition via mobile devices.
Responding to growing healthcare needs is a big challenge ahead and telehealth is quite simply, critical to the future of healthcare. Addressing concerns of an increasing ageing population, extending health services to rural populations, and making best use of physicians’ time for greater patient outcomes are just some of the issues to be considered when exploring the opportunities for efficient, cost-effective healthcare delivery via technology.
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