Digital Technology and the Healthcare Industry

More than any other industry, healthcare is transforming at a rapid pace, thanks in large part to digital technology. The cost of healthcare continues to be a grave concern for patients and the facilities that serve them. But digital technology has the potential to relieve these costs and increase the public’s access to healthcare services. Instead of making a trip to their doctor’s office or the nearest hospital, patients can keep in touch with healthcare providers using live video and audio, instant messaging, and remote patient monitoring, reducing the cost of care for the patient and their healthcare provider.

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While many facilities and providers have yet to adopt these digital services, the healthcare industry is becoming increasingly aware of the benefits these services provide, including reducing the cost of care, increasing the patient population’s access to care, and making it easier for healthcare providers to manage chronic illnesses and diseases. But change can be difficult. Many facilities are struggling to build a digital infrastructure to implement these services.

The implications of implementing these digital technology services, known as telehealth, are far-reaching. The public’s relationship with healthcare will continue to evolve as more patients become more familiar with these services. Attitudes towards care and the patient-doctor relationship may shift dramatically in the years to come as more facilities invest in telehealth services.

The Challenges of Modern Healthcare

Accessing and paying for healthcare remains a chief concern among consumers in the U.S. The total cost of care reached $10,000 per person in 2016, and that number continues to rise year after year. Compare that number to $146, which was the cost of care per person back in 1960.

Of course, the average American is living much longer than they were back in the 60s, but the cost of care is leaving the average consumer feeling rattled, with many individuals refusing care altogether in order to avoid costly insurance premiums, co-pays, and medical bills. A recent study shows that 44% of Americans declined to seek out medical attention when they were sick or injured due to financial concerns. While another 40% said they willingly skipped a medical appointment, test or check-up due to the cost of care.

Clearly, the healthcare industry is in the middle of a financial crisis if sick patients are forgoing treatment altogether. Confusion surrounding the country’s healthcare laws continues to be a concern for patients, facilities, and insurance companies as well. Insurance companies are shutting down their operations across the country, leaving consumers few options when it comes to coverage. Many insurance plans come with high deductibles, which means patients are forced to pay for many routine services out-of-pocket, using their coverage only in times of crisis.

The Affordable Care Act has increased the public’s access to care, mandating that insurance providers cover pre-existing conditions, mental healthcare, and other services that insurers have refused to cover for years. Yet, these changes have added to the cost of many insurance plans, making it difficult for many consumers to find affordable policies.

Adding to the confusion, the Trump Administration and Congress continue to chip away at the ACA without offering a replacement. All this turbulence has left the industry and consumers scrambling as they try to make sense of how these changes will affect their access to care and the cost of administering and receiving services.   

The Changing Patient Population

The American population is also undergoing some radical changes, starting with the baby boomers. The generation born right after the Second World War are easing into retirement and end-of-life care. By 2029, the entire baby boomer generation will be over the age of 65, which means 20% of all Americans will reach the age of retirement.

But caring for an increasingly older patient population will be a challenge in the years to come. The cost to rent a room at a nursing home or assisted living community can be crippling for some families and individuals, with many individuals choosing to live at home instead. A recent report shows that patients over the age of 60 are increasingly forgoing treatment and routine medical services. 25% didn’t fill a prescription or took less than the prescribed dose of medicine, 25% skipped a recommended medical test or treatment, and 24% didn’t go to the doctor when they were sick or injured.

Accessing care as an older individual can be a major hassle, especially in rural areas. Older patients might not have access to transportation, they may be too old to drive, or they may be too sick or injured to move. This is in addition to concerns over the cost of care with many baby boomers struggling to pay their medical bills. As more of the population passes the age of 65, the healthcare industry will need to find a way to care for patients that don’t have the means to make regular in-person appointments.

Understanding Telehealth and Telemedicine

Telehealth is making waves in the healthcare industry, revolutionizing how care is administered to patients. “What is telehealth?” is a question that providers hear often as they try to educate their patients on the benefits of these services, especially in rural areas where access to care can be hard to come by.

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Telehealth is the digitization of the entire healthcare system, including facility operations, data aggregation and storage, artificial intelligence and predictive models, and caring for patients using live video, audio and instant messaging.

Telemedicine is a narrow term that falls under the category of telehealth. It refers to the actual act of caring for patients using digital technology. This may include remote patient consultations, managing chronic conditions using sensors and remote monitors, and diagnosing and treating patients from afar.

The Rise of Telehealth Services

Telehealth and telemedicine have been on the rise for several years now. In fact, 90% of healthcare executives say their facilities are developing or have already developed a telehealth application and over half of all U.S. hospitals currently have a telehealth program in place. This is having a dramatic effect on the industry as a whole as patients become more familiar with these services and the benefits they provide.

In 2018, around seven million people across the globe are expected to use telehealth services. Yet, this represents a small fraction of the global healthcare market. Studies show that consumers are optimistic and eager to try telehealth services, but many telehealth programs are still in progress as facilities work towards implementing a technological infrastructure. 65% of patients with a primary care provider would be willing to see them using telemedicine video conferencing software or instant messaging. And nearly 60% of patients over the age of 65 would be willing to manage a chronic condition with a telehealth visit.

Telehealth services can dramatically reduce the cost of healthcare, making it a desirable alternative to traditional in-person healthcare appointments. The average cost of an in-person healthcare visit is $125, while the average cost of a telehealth visit is around $45. With a growing elderly population and more Americans skipping treatment altogether due to financial concerns, telemedicine has the potential to increase the public’s access to care by lowering costs and reducing the need for transportation.

Advances in Healthcare Technology

As telehealth continues to play an increasingly vital role in the healthcare industry, the technology driving these trends will only continue to improve. Currently, patients interact with telehealth systems using live video, audio, and instant messaging, but this is likely just the tip of the iceberg. New apps and technological innovations are making their way into the industry, creating new opportunities for patients and healthcare providers.

Smartphones have revolutionized everyday life for millions of Americans and consumers around the world. In 2017, just under a third of the global population used a smartphone. And around 68% of all adults in the U.S. own a smartphone, so it should be no surprise that these handy portable devices may be the new face of healthcare across the country and beyond. New healthcare video conferencing and instant message apps are making their way into the mainstream, giving patients unfettered access to healthcare providers. New apps also make it easier for patients and their providers to collect data, including dietary information, stats on the patient’s physical activity, and prescription pill usage.

In addition to smartphones, the Internet of Things (IoT) is also revolutionizing the way the world thinks about healthcare. The industry is making room for all kinds of new technology in healthcare, including remote sensors such as ingestible smart pills that track and monitor a patient’s medicine intake, wearable devices that monitor a patient’s condition, and other smart devices that transmit data wirelessly to healthcare providers. But many of these devices are still in the early stages of development, and many of them do not meet the industry’s standards for data privacy and security. The industry still has some work to do, but we may see more patients making use of these smart devices in the near future.

As the industry continues to test and develop this new technology, more providers and their patients will start making use of these digital services. Providers will have greater access to patient medical data as they try to treat and monitor a patient’s condition from afar. Patients, especially those with chronic medical conditions, will be able to wirelessly transmit data with minimal effort. Patients with diabetes are used to monitor their blood sugar using daily blood tests, but new sensors have the potential to make these processes obsolete.

A New Era of Healthcare

While the future landscape of healthcare remains unclear, it’s evident that digital technology will play an outsized role. More facilities are making room for digital technology in their operations, changing the way providers interact with their patients. In the years ahead, more patients will likely feel more comfortable using telehealth technology to consult with care providers and manage their chronic conditions. Life is inherently busy for many Americans and the benefits of these digital health programs are too good to ignore. Americans can simply log on to the internet to correspond with their care provider from virtually anywhere, increasing the patient’s access to care.

The patients that avoid healthcare services due to financial concerns may become increasingly dependent on telehealth services instead of making in-person appointments. This means less time away from work and personal obligations like raising children. Telehealth technology is lowering the price of care across the board, helping more people seek the medical advice and care they need despite their limited finances.

Patients may start thinking of healthcare in new ways instead of worrying about financial concerns. When a patient gets sick, their first instinct will be to schedule a video call, drastically changing and improving the doctor-patient relationship. Instead of fearing doctor’s appointments, more patients will welcome this advice and medical counseling with open arms. This paves the way for more preventative care, helping people better manage their health and avoid costly run-ins with the emergency room.

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As smart gadgets and remote monitors enter the market, more patients may take a backseat when it comes to managing their health. If a person with diabetes no longer has to use blood tests to manage their blood sugar levels, they can make time for other activities and wait for the monitor to alert them of any issues. All kinds of patients may defer to smart sensors in the future as this technology becomes more readily available.

It’s almost impossible to predict what effect Congress or the current or future President of the U.S. may have on the healthcare system. For the time being, the Affordable Care Act continues to be the law of the land, but as new changes work their way into the system, some patients with pre-existing conditions may lose access to care. Premiums will continue to be a financial cause for concern for many Americans for the foreseeable future, but many will be able to avoid costly medical bills by making use of telehealth technology.

With an aging patient population and rising costs, the healthcare industry continues to grapple with a host of challenges. The only way for the industry to care for aging baby boomers without dramatically increasing the overall cost of care is to make use of telehealth technology. All kinds of patients can benefit from these digital services, while facilities can increase patient access to care without charging their patients a fortune in medical bills.

Despite all these changes, one thing remains clear: telehealth and telemedicine will play increasingly prominent roles in the global healthcare market.  

 

Sources:

https://www.thebalance.com/causes-of-rising-healthcare-costs-4064878

http://www.westhealth.org/press-release/survey201

https://www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/p25-1141.pdf

https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2018/03/27/boomers-and-gen-xers-skipping-health-care-due-to-cost/#663e551c5aa3

https://medcitynews.com/2015/05/new-ata-president-tuckson-calls-telehealth-mainstream/

https://www.statista.com/statistics/302641/global-telehealth-market-patients/

https://www.statista.com/statistics/203734/global-smartphone-penetration-per-capita-since-2005/

http://cliniciantoday.com/wearable-tech-and-what-it-means-for-clinical-practice/

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Gea Gabor

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