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The rapid adoption of telehealth to fight COVID-19

A Picture of Alejandra Rodriguez
April 30, 2020 | Topic: Healthcare  
The rapid adoption of telehealth to fight COVID-19

Covid-19 helps accelerate the adoption of telehealth

The current global situation demands rapid responses from the healthcare industry. Doctors and patients are adapting to a new model where face-to-face consultations need to be reduced as much as possible in order to control the outbreak of Covid-19. To achieve this, the healthcare sector is increasingly working hand in hand with technology, in particular using video calls and tracking applications. While these are some of the most visible examples of the digitization of healthcare at the moment, we’re also witnessing broader digital transformation of the sector.

In this article we’ll review solutions that healthcare practitioners are implementing and we’ll explore their impact on the future of the healthcare industry.

Hospitals are adopting remote monitoring and other digital devices

Hospitals around the world are having conversations with technology companies specialized in developing mobile electrocardiograms, digital stethoscopes and other devices able to remotely monitor heart rate abnormalities and other medical conditions. This is helpful to both detect Covid-19 cases, as well as providing patients the tools to more proactively monitor their health.

For instance, the Mayo Clinic partnered with AliveCor, a company that provides mobile electrocardiogram technology (enabling people to easily check their heart rate at home via their mobile device). The US Food and Drug Administration granted the company approval to measure and detect potentially dangerous QTc intervals (used to detect heart rhythm problems) due to coronavirus. Some of their products include KardiaMobile, a system that detects heart abnormalities such as atrial fibrillation or bradycardia, and KardiaPro a platform for remote patient monitoring.

The clinic also partnered with Eko, a company that developed a digital stethoscope that supports wireless auscultation and streams data to conduct visual and auditory analysis and monitors cardiac and pulmonary health.

The Chinese company Infervision, focused on medical artificial intelligence, is working with hospitals to analyze Computer Tomography (CT) scans. The company developed an AI tool, which was originally created to detect lung cancer, and it’s now being adapted to detect signs of pneumonia associated with the coronavirus. Infervision’s technology can read CT scans in only 15 seconds, and doctors at Tongji Hospital in Wuhan and other Chinese cities are using it to detect Covid-19 cases more quickly.

The increased use of digital devices and remote monitoring is just part of the broader digitization of the healthcare sector. As clinics and hospitals aim to increase their efficiency via the use of digital technologies. Belatrix’s parent company, Globant, together with Salesforce, created an interactive, real-time platform to enable hospitals to monitor and track the number of intensive-care beds, healthcare professionals, and ventilators at both a local and national level.

Digital systems and remote monitoring are accelerating the adoption of telehealth solutions. This will not only contribute to reducing the impact of the current global healthcare crisis, but will also change the industry, with doctors and hospitals adopting telehealth for regular consultations and treatments.

Online consultations or telehealth are on the rise

Besides digital devices for remote monitoring of body functions, online consultations are becoming key in avoiding crowded waiting rooms, unnecessary visits to the doctor, and preventing an increase of infected medical staff.

Before the outbreak, online consultations represented only 1% of the almost 350 million annual visits to medical care in Britain’s National Health Service. Today, telehealth companies are facing a significant increase in demand. For instance, accuRx, which is a trusted tool for telecommunication between patients and clinicians, developed a video chat tool in one weekend when the virus hit Britain. Clinicians are using the tool for 35,000 consultations per day.

Push doctor, a British telehealth company, offers online appointments with doctors in the national health service. The company stated its weekly online appointments have increased 70% due to coronavirus.

The US Congress approved an $8.3 billion emergency funding bill to loosen restrictions on the use of telehealth for people who are part of the Medicare program, which specializes in elders, who can make an online appointment for a routine check or a consultation with a specialist. Doctors are now allowed to prescribe medicine to patients they haven’t met in person as long as they communicate with them through video calls. This helps not only patients diagnosed with coronavirus but also people who need medication for special treatments.


Mobile apps and platforms helping track the virus

In addition to providing services such as remote monitoring and teleconsultations, digital health providers will likely place an ever more important role in tracking and monitoring the coronavirus. It’s crucial that people at home can recognize the symptoms and know the channels available for assistance in case they become exposed.

Technology giants Google and Apple have partnered to develop an operating system for smartphones able to detect whether users have been close to someone who tested positive for coronavirus. The system will work with Bluetooth signals that trigger an alert to exposed users. Singapore released a similar application called TraceTogether, which also works with Bluetooth. When a person is diagnosed with Covid-19, he or she can give contact tracers access to data stored on their cell phones, so they can send an alert to potentially exposed individuals.

Latin America is also realizing how apps can play a role in fighting the crisis. In Peru, the government developed an application “Peru in your hands” which enables people to visualize high-risk zones and conduct a virtual triage. The app counts with an alert button that lets people know if they were exposed and provides guidance on how to receive assistance from a specialist.

Even though these applications don’t replace testing, they are important to foster awareness regarding self-isolation and will be vital to keep track of cases once social distancing is over. However, these operating systems need millions of people to provide information and trust privacy policies. According to Apple and Google, their app will keep the information anonymous and it will not track GPS location. But these tools raise concerns among tech leaders and governments as it is hard not to think about what will happen in the future with all the private data that technology companies are collecting to control the outbreak.

What do healthtech companies need to consider?

Amid the crisis, many healthtech startups are leading the way, providing innovative services and devices. In creating new services, it’s important to bear in mind the following key points:

  • Build a scalable and resilient technology architecture. The number of customers using remote healthcare services is increasing significantly, which translates into more congested networks and high demand. For example, in the case of remote monitoring, healthtech startups will need to ensure they can handle high demand for video capacity.
  • Emphasize the recruitment of trained medical staff on the platform. Healthtech companies need to count on enough professionals to assist patients in the use of remote care and ensure their digital channels are available when needed. At a time when the pressure on healthcare services around the world is strained, this will likely be a greater challenge than usual.
  • Adapt to different regulatory environments. Healthtech executives also need to consider regulatory issues regarding telehealth. Regulations vary from one place to the other, and there are specific requirements to ensure health record standards, storage and access.
    For example, various states in the US are finding ways to integrate telehealth to the current healthcare system. In New Mexico, it is required that health plans cover both in-person contact and telemedicine services, and the law ensures payment parity for remote services provided by in-network providers. Healthtech executives need to be aware of these new regulations, which might alleviate the economical burden of the integration of telemedicine and the adaptation of existing devices.
  • Focus on user experience of different stakeholders. Now that doctors and patients are adapting to new methods of medical care, it’s crucial that healthtech startups take into consideration the needs, expectations and habits of a wide array of users when developing devices, applications and other digital platforms. User experience is key in ensuring that telemedicine is effective in treating patients.
  • Device manufacturers may well face production constraints. Healthtech startups might face constraints regarding production because their manufacturing capacity may not be big enough to cover demand. As a result, companies will need to establish partnerships to help them increase their production capacity.

Digitalization takes over the healthcare industry

The global pandemic has forced changes throughout many industries, taking digitalization to new levels. The healthcare sector is rapidly adopting remote monitoring and teleconsulting to treat patients.

Although some of these technologies weren’t entirely new, the virus forced hospitals and patients to ally with tech companies to control the outbreak, start using existing devices to track the virus and develop other technologies to detect and treat cases. This might drastically change the healthcare sector, where healthtech startups play a role in providing ever more personalized care.

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