While connected health usage has been on the rise for several years, it hasn’t caught on as a mainstream healthcare option, for several reasons, including the comfort level patients have with physically seeing their doctors. After all, that’s how medicine has been delivered for centuries. Historically, there have also been regulatory obstacles and technology requirements, though government agencies and healthcare technology providers are helping address both.
But, with the world dealing with a viral coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 2.2 million people – over half a million in the U.S. alone (numbers that are still rising) – and governments everywhere issuing social distancing mandates and ordering schools and non-essential business to close or initiate teleworking strategies, the stage has been set for a rapid increase in the use of telehealth services.
Some providers are increasing their use of connected health capabilities, some are just starting their telehealth practices, and still others are finding new ways to implement it to enable healthcare delivery during this crisis.
Regardless, the COVID-19 outbreak is teaching both healthcare providers and their patients about how connected health can help in crisis situations.
Early Screenings –
At the onset of the outbreak, the CDC recommended that patients exhibiting coronavirus symptoms not immediately go to their healthcare providers. Instead, it suggested calling first or setting up a virtual visit, so physicians could identify potential COVID-19 cases and provide specific instructions, including whether to seek treatment or to manage mild cases through home treatment and isolation.
First Responders –
Telehealth can enable emergency responders to conduct on-site video chats with physicians to evaluate patients’ conditions and determine best courses of action. This can help reduce the strain on hospitals and first responders. In addition, it can put ambulances and EMS personnel to be back in service faster, enabling them to help more patients.
Physical Exams –
While not all in-person exams can be replaced with virtual technology, common consumer devices can provide valuable information to help physicians treat patients remotely during emergencies. Smartphone microphones, for instance, can aid self-examinations by analyzing coughs using AI to alert patients to potentially dangerous conditions. Fitness trackers can provide data around heart rate, breathing rate, body temperature, and more, to enable remote monitoring of patients without requiring hospital admission or physician visits. These technologies can free physicians to aid patients suffering from COVID-19 or other more serious conditions.
Mental Health –
Mental health patients often require regular treatment to manage their conditions, and the stress of dealing with a disease outbreak and home isolation could cause elevated stress levels or other mental health conditions for anyone. Even though therapists may have cancelled in-person appointments, virtual visits – either via phone or video call – can enable them to continue treating patients while following safety protocols.
Provider Efficiency –
Because fewer healthcare professionals are needed to manage virtual visits, providers may be able to see more patients, and staff can spend more time on other necessary tasks, including ensuring cleanliness of on-site facilities for those patients who do need in-person visits.
Population Health –
Fitness trackers like Fitbits have already been shown to help in predicting flu-like disease trends at the state level. Researchers are now hoping to find similar results about the spread of COVID-19 to improve detection and containment of viral illnesses.
Naturally, connected health cannot replace all in-person physician engagements, but there are many ways telehealth and RPM methodologies can help increase the efficiency of healthcare delivery – and aid in reducing the spread of contagious diseases. Furthermore, even as this crisis subsides, new social practices likely to continue for some time, making connected health increasingly valuable. Furthermore, the lessons learned during this crisis can help the healthcare system better manage other infectious diseases, including seasonal flu, in the future.
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