Industry Voices—The future of medicine is going virtual. Here is what that means for both doctors and patients

Remote Monitoring
This past April, Forrester predicted that virtual care visits will soar to more than a billion this year, 900 million of which are related to the pandemic. (Getty/metamorworks)

If you own a smartwatch, you’re already familiar with their assortment of health tracking features and motivational reminders, sometimes gentle and sometimes not, about your behavior that involves standing, moving, exercise, breathing, and so on. 

Even more sophisticated features are on the way, along with the potential for analyzing and sharing that information with your doctor. And the public acceptance of this wearable technology is continuing to grow.

Digital medicine—by which I include all the different flavors of technology-enabled remote monitoring, diagnosis, and patient treatment that are currently making the healthcare rounds—is not only relatively new, it is still struggling to establish best professional practices and standards of care comparable to those of more conventional medical procedure formats. 

But its potential is tremendous and, for many, both in and outside of medicine, it represents the fulfillment of a long-held vision for the field of healthcare in much the same way that commercial flight did for transportation buffs a century ago. 

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It means bringing healthcare to you instead of bringing you somewhere else to receive healthcare.  A recent report by Parks Associates revealed that even as far back as 2017, 60% of U.S. households with broadband access were already keenly interested in receiving remote care that could take place online or by phone.

Even though the devices and systems that go into today’s virtual medical bag are clearly works-in-progress, their use is exploding right now. That rapid expansion is partly due to the scourge of COVID-19, which has elevated public health consciousness to unprecedented heights. This past April, for example, Forrester predicted that virtual care visits will soar to more than a billion this year, 900 million of which are related to the pandemic. 

Part of the drive behind the proliferation of these electronic devices comes from the tech business itself. Clinically valuable technologies are advancing rapidly in the private sector. They are not only more capable, more durable, and more compatible, they are also becoming more affordable. But two things are still lagging.  

First, a professional consensus around appropriate remote medical practices, and second, integrated health management networks that securely convey health information collected remotely, combined with readings from more specialized remote devices, and then transmitted in a timely and coherent way to medical professionals. At the same time, however, significant progress is now underway in both areas, and standards are likely to emerge later this decade.

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In the meantime, the range of applications for remote healthcare keeps expanding. Its initial use cases addressed the challenges of reaching rural patients—a feature that has continued to grow in importance to the Canadian healthcare system, particularly for its sparsely populated northern regions. But in the age of COVID-19, the significance of travel distance has given way to that of social distance; in both cases, the technologies function the same way and produce the same results, whether it’s across the world or across the street.

What do those include? According to the CEO of Synzi, a company that produces messaging systems for patients, they include communication for virtual consults, expanding the capabilities of small hospitals by bringing in distant specialists remotely, reducing travel time for specialists and patients, allowing patients to participate more effectively in their own healthcare, and improving the patient’s experience with enhanced engagement and better outcomes. 

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, one physician described how a virtual pilot program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital led to an astonishing 97% satisfaction rate among patients, with three-quarters of them reporting that the virtual interaction improved their relationships with their healthcare providers. The physician also went on to explain that 87% of the patients said they would have needed to come into an office to see their provider face-to-face if not for their virtual visit.

RELATED: Geisinger, UPMC among health systems fast-tracking tech, telehealth projects for COVID-19

Looking forward, a recent study by Arizton examined the emerging field of remote healthcare and reached the following conclusions: first, that the doctors’ inability or reluctance to see patients directly during the pandemic will accelerate the adoption of remote healthcare solutions. Second, that their adoption will remain strong after COVID-19 has passed, delivering user-friendly sensors, remote monitoring platforms, virtual care solutions and interactive virtual assistance to patients everywhere. 

Finally, the study concluded that modern communication technologies are ushering in a revolution in information sharing between patients and physicians as well as real-time virtual health leading to phenomenal growth in remote medicine through 2025.

The advent of digital medicine represents a tectonic shift both in the administration of medicine and in the venues where it’s provided. 

Perhaps the most important outcome of wearable technologies and remote monitoring devices is that it shifts more of the responsibility for health care onto the individual patient, increasing their self-awareness, adherence, motivation, and accountability for their own progress based on objective data.

Justin Williams is the CEO and founder of Noteworth.