Let’s step into the world of The Jetsons for a moment. It’s 2062, and push-button conveniences, moving sidewalks, and humanoid robots see to our every need. Hungry? Push a button and a fully cooked meal is ready in seconds. Voice-activated controls turn the lights on and off, “videophone” conferencing is commonplace, and a watch with a mini antenna lets you watch your favorite shows on the go.
Hold on… 2062? This is starting to sound a lot like 2019. Many of The Jetson’s futuristic promises for things like 3-D-printed food, vacuuming robots, and smart everything have come to fruition just over 50 years after the show’s debut. However, one seemingly simple innovation is conspicuously missing from our modern world: virtual doctor’s visits.
In the first part of this three-part series on telehealth, we explored some of the reasons why adoption has been slow over the past few decades – as well as how technological maturity and regulatory changes are aligning to enable a telehealth tipping point in 2019. While we still may be a way off from intergalactic travel and flying-cars-turned-portable-briefcases, telehealth is one Jetson-esque innovation more likely to be just around the corner. Two areas in particular stick out as major opportunities for telehealth to make an impact both today and in the future: rural health and the impact of wearables.
Telehealth in Rural Communities
In The Jetsons episode 10 (despite its lasting influence, the show only ran for a single season), Jane Jetson calls up the doctor via video chat when her son Elroy complains he’s sick with “Venus Virus” and will have to stay home from school. While convenience is one of the most obvious applications of telehealth, the technology would have far greater impact on how we approach healthcare access for rural and aging populations, as well as those with chronic conditions.Today In: Innovation
Rural communities make up nearly 20% of the U.S. population, but have access to less than 10% of the providers in this country. A report by the Pew Research Center found that for nearly a quarter of rural residents, access to good doctors and hospitals is a major concern. From Appalachia and the deep south to the Midwest and midwestern states to rural Maine, stories of patients traveling hours to find a doctor or specialist are not uncommon. And with healthcare provider shortages and the recent increase in the closure of rural hospitals, this issue isn’t going to fix itself.
For these rural communities, telemedicine could reduce many of these barriers to improve access to quality healthcare. Consultations on simple health concerns or follow-ups on existing conditions would greatly reduce travel time and could help doctors ensure prescription and treatment adherence. Instead of waiting for a physician to visit a remote area or making a long trip for an appointment, physician consultations via telemedicine are faster, cheaper and more efficient than traditional healthcare appointments.
It’s not just the patients who would benefit, either. Factors such as remote image diagnostics, access to remote specialists or even remote physician training programs can help rural hospitals struggling financially to outsource these typically expensive services. In fact, a study that looked at 24 hospitals in four rural midwestern states found the economic impact of telemedicine to be at least $20,000 to $1,300,000 annually.
The Marriage of Wearables and Telemedicine
When the power of wearable devices is combined with the innovation of telehealth, additional benefits can be seen, particularly among patients with chronic conditions or the elderly. We are in the midst of a silver tsunami, as thousands of aging Baby Boomers turn 65. For many of these older adults, transportation is a challenge, especially for those living with chronic conditions. The combination of wearables and telemedicine can offer those who would otherwise be hospital-bound additional freedom through in-home remote monitoring.
An example of such a program is FirstHealth, a five-hospital health system based in North Carolina, which enables patients diagnosed with diabetes or heart conditions who had experienced frequent hospitalizations to be monitored remotely between visits. Patients enrolled in the program were given a tablet to track and report their own vital signs, and participated in both home and office visits by nurses when needed. The pilot program has shown decreased hospitalization rates compared with traditional healthcare models, and response time when intervention is needed continues to improve.
Additionally, during the first two years after the program launched in 2017, the health system reported savings of over $2 million. Considering that patients with chronic conditions and the elderly make up the vast majority of healthcare spending, this program is likely one that will be emulated in the coming years.
Concluding Thoughts: The Physician Perspective
The creators of The Jetsons hit the nail on the head in many ways when guessing what the future would hold. From the Apple Watch to 3-D printed food, it’s a testament to the vision of the writers just how spot-on some of their predictions were.
What the show creators may not have foreseen, however, is just how revolutionary — and complex — telemedicine delivery can be. And, while we’ve explored here how telemedicine could help many at-risk populations we haven’t addressed one vitally important one: physicians. With more freedom to engage patients in different ways and on their own schedules, physicians could use telemedicine to help reduce an epidemic facing today’s healthcare industry: burnout. Affecting nearly half of all physicians, burnout is a real threat to the wellbeing of our healthcare system — and telemedicine could be just what the doctor ordered to help alleviate the burden we place on our physicians, too.
As the Smithsonian Magazine wrote, “‘The Jetsons’ and everything they represented were seen by so many not as a possible future, but a promise of one.” Stay tuned for the final post on telemedicine, which will look further into the future and explore how remote patient care and innovative gadgets will change how we approach the very nature of healthcare. This future promises a world where the distinction between telehealth and health dissolves, leaving us with one universal term: healthcare.